Food & Organics

food waste in Canada: An in depth review

Heather Brown
April 08, 2022
· 18 min read

Picture this: It’s your favourite holiday, and you are surrounded by the ones you love most.

Sitting around the dinner table, you’re sharing old memories, laughing along, and catching up on one another’s lives. Then, in comes the star of the show … A perfectly roasted turkey is placed at the centre of the table. The aroma is intoxicating, and the side dishes are masterpieces … a feast for not just your stomach, but your eyes. You’re about to dive in, but just split second before you reach out to start serving your plate, the host interrupts you ….

“Before we get started eating, don’t forget, we have to toss half the food!”

You look at them quizzically. Huh?

But without hesitation, they begin taking just over half of every dish and tossing it into a garbage bin.

You utter the only word you can think of, proclaiming it in disbelief: “WHY?”

The host looks at you and shrugs, before answering: “Over half our food is wasted in Canada and sent to landfill. We wouldn’t want to go against the status quo, would we? At least, not on the holidays.”

Your eyes nearly bulge out of your head at hearing this. We can’t possibly send more than half our food to landfill in Canada, can we?

Sadly, it’s true. Although it may not happen exactly how described in this hypothetical scenario, it is true that from production to consumption, Canadians are wasting a massive amount of our food. While it certainly isn’t as simple as scraping food off our plates, directly into the waste bin, each of us can still play a role in making a difference. Keep reading to learn more.

What is food waste?

Food-waste is what happens when food, or the ingredients to make it, end up being disposed of. This happens in every stage of the supply chain, from production, to consumption, and has a detrimental impact on both our environment and economy here in this country. From food that is tossed in the supermarket, for not meeting aesthetic guidelines (think an oddly shaped pear), to leftovers scraped off of plates in the dish pit of a bustling restaurant, to food that sits in our home refrigerators until well past its “Best Before” date when we finally see it, and toss it into the bin, food-waste is happening every single day. As Canadians, it is up to us to make a change.

How much of our food ends up in landfill in Canada?

In Canada, approximately 58% of the food we produce ends up in landfill. Sadly, this is even higher than the global rate, which estimates that one third of the food we produce is wasted.

Ideally, if food waste must be disposed of, it should be processed through an alternative disposal method. Unfortunately, for the bulk of Canadian food waste, that is not the case, with an estimated 40% of municipal solid waste being composed of organic material. This means, the vast majority of the food that we are scraping from our plates is ending up in landfill.

While at first glance, the idea of food-waste being buried back into the same earth from which it was grown might not seem so bad, it’s important to recognize that a landfill is not an appropriate environment for food-waste to decompose.

In order for organic material to properly decompose, we must be able to control three key factors:

  1. Temperature
  2. Oxygen
  3. Moisture

In a landfill environment, we have no control over any of these. The food waste is buried under other solid waste, where it sits and slowly rots for many, many years.

In fact, one single head of lettuce can take up to 25 years to decompose in landfill. When food-waste is buried by garbage and other materials, it takes much longer to biodegrade than nature intended, using up limited space in our landfills, producing methane gas, and taking away from the invaluable opportunity we have to divert this material into compost production.

Why does food-waste happen?

If food-waste was simply limited to the food we scrape from our plates at the end of a meal, it would be a much easier problem to solve. However, the reality is that food-waste is a much more complex issue than that. Food is lost during every phase of the supply chain, from production to consumption.

Field Losses (24%)

Field loss refers to the food that is produced on farms, but never leaves. Food is waste on farms, often when it is perfectly safe and nutritious for a variety of reasons. Cosmetic requirements, harvesting inefficiencies (due to both human and machine error), inedible parts of crops, profitability inefficiencies, and on-farm storage issues, all contribute to the food that is wasted, before it ever even leaves the farm.

While most farmers do try to use as much as the food that is wasted as possible as animal feed or for compost production, much of it is left to decompose on fields or to rot in cull piles, which are both sub-optimal approaches for the soil and the later crops that will be grown in it.

The most significant opportunity for food-waste reduction on the farm is by revisiting cosmetic requirements that distributors have for produce. It is estimated that about 30% of the field loss food waste is directly related to cosmetic requirements, and many of the fruits and vegetables that are lost are completely safe and healthy for consumers to eat. As awareness surrounding food-waste in Canada increases, many consumers are looking for opportunities to purchase produce locally, and directly from the source, and are more willing to overlook cosmetic abnormalities, provided produce is still safe to eat. If retailers and distributors are equally able to adjust their expectations of food appearance, the food waste that is seen on farms could be drastically reduced.

Packaging / Processing (47%)

We see the vast majority of food-waste and food loss in Canada occurring during the packaging and processing phase of the supply chain. Both perishable and non-perishable food is lost during this process for several reasons.

Food may be wasted due to being deemed unsuitable for sale or consumption, it may be wasted due to cultural perceptions of quality processed goods, the batch can be lost due to human and equipment errors or breakdowns, too much was purchased for demand, and more. In total, it’s estimated that about 40% of the food waste that is generated during this phase of the supply chain is avoidable. While a small percentage of the food that is wasted during this phase does end up being donated to charitable organizations such as food banks, that number could be substantially increased. In addition, packaging materials could be revisited to maximize freshness and food safety.

While consumers at home do not have the ability to impact the packaging and processing phase, we do have the opportunity to focus on supporting local farmers and growers and using our buying power to support producers who are making an effort towards long-term sustainability.

Distribution (2%)

While many consumers have made an effort to support local farmers and food producers in recent years, the truth is, the vast majority of the food we consume requires movement from the region in which it is produced, to where it will be processed, to where it will ultimately be sold and consumed. This process of movement throughout the supply chain is referred to as distribution.

A significant amount of the food that is delivered to distribution centres ends up becoming a major contributor to the food waste problem. In fact, a senior executive for one of Canada’s largest food distributors, identified that up to 75 truckloads of produce are rejected at most distribution centres each week. This amounts to 2,722 tonnes a week or 141,570 tonnes a year of produce alone.

Beyond food being wasted due to rejection, we also see food wasted throughout distribution due to storage issues during the process. Problems with cooling infrastructure along the supply chain (from farm to home fridge) leads to waste, and improper storage practices often lead to food spoilage.

While 2% may not seem like a huge fraction of the overall food waste problem, the opportunity to adjust and improve transportation and storage protocols offers the opportunity to ensure less food is waste, and more is put on the tables of families across Canada.

Retail (4%)

If you’ve ever wandered the plentifully stocked shelves of the supermarket and wondered how that much food can possibly be purchased and consumed by the population of your community before it expires, then you definitely were onto something. Psychology has proven that when it comes to maximizing sales, there is a benefit to overstocking grocery store shelves. The appearance of abundance attracts consumers, thus increasing sales in the long-term. However, while this may be good for the bottom line, there is no denying that this generates excess waste, with overstocked shelves directly resulting in wasted food.

Retail food waste occurs when food passes its expiry date before sale, but also occurs when food is delivered to the store and rejected (often for cosmetic reasons such as an oddly shaped fruit). Retail centres and stores have the opportunity to revisit their food-waste production by reexamining purchasing protocols and participating in food donation programs instead of sending unsold food to landfill.

Restaurant / Food Service (9%)

The food service industry encompasses a variety of settings in which food is prepared and served. From hospitals to school cafeterias, to mall food-courts, and everything in between, restaurants are only the tipping point of this wide-ranging industry.

In these settings, food waste is an unfortunate fact of life. It Is estimated that about one third of the food-waste generated in the food service setting is unavoidable (e.g., vegetable peelings, bones, shells etc.). However, the remaining two thirds of food waste could be otherwise diverted.

Food waste in the restaurant and food service industry can be examined as two separate streams: Pre-Organics, and Post-Organics. Pre-organics refers to the food-waste that is created in the preparation process (example: vegetable peelings), where post-organics refers to the food-waste that was served to customers, but never consumed (i.e.: leftovers on their plates).

While the post-organics stream (the food-waste generated by food left on plates by consumers) would be difficult to eliminate entirely, restaurants can revisit portions and plating, in order to minimize the amount of material that is scraped into the bin in the dish pit.

The greater opportunity for food waste reduction is seen with the pre-organics stream (the food-waste generated before food is served). By revisiting storage, preparation, and overall management strategies (e.g., efficient ordering), it may be possible to minimize the amount of food is that tossed, before it ever sees the dining table.

Home (14%)

The final stage of the supply chain occurs in our very own homes. 14% of Canadian food-waste occurs during this phase, with consumers tossing food into the waste bin in their homes, including leftover food, expired food that is tossed before it’s wasted, and liquids that are poured down the drain.

As consumers, our greatest opportunity to impact change is in our very own homes. We have the opportunity to reduce how much food we waste by developing a food-waste reduction strategy with our families. What that strategy looks like will be individual to what suits the needs of you and your household. Recommended approaches include:

  • Meal planning and prepping
  • Buying fresh and only what you need
  • Buying local
  • Revisiting best before and expiry dates before tossing food from your fridge
  • Portion control
  • Creative use of leftovers
  • Starting a home compost program

When advising on food-waste recovery and reduction programs, Waste Solutions recommends the “One step at a time” approach. This applies to making changes within your own home as well. Rather than set multiple different goals to reduce food waste, we recommend choosing one or two habits from the above list to start with and building upon that foundation as you go. This approach will promote longevity of your efforts and long-term success.

What is the environmental impact of food waste?

As we work to reduce food waste, it is important that we shift our perspective on it, and consider it not as ‘waste,’ but as a valuable resource. Often, wasted food could be used to feed humans or animals, processed to create energy, or to create nutrient rich compost. However, in our linear economy, it is all too often thought of as ‘garbage’ and sent to landfill, where it slowly rots for years to come. Undeniably, this comes with severe environmental impacts.

Each year, food waste in Canada creates approximately 56.6 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent emissions, as it slowly rots in landfill. When we consider the impact of food-waste on the climate crisis, this cannot be overlooked. In fact, methane which is produced by food rotting in landfill is 25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

On a global level, food-waste is responsible for 30% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that nearly 1/3 of the greenhouse gas that we are directly responsible for is caused by food that could have been diverted from landfill.

What is the economic impact of food waste?

The annual overall cost of food-waste in Canada is estimated to be $100 billion. The economic impact of food-waste may seem insurmountable at these rates, but the truth is that an effective reduction strategy including tax credits and landfill bans can be successful.

When broken down to an individual level, the average Canadian household amounts to 140 kilograms of wasted food per year – at a cost of more than $1,100 per year! This proves that the financial benefit to reducing food-waste is seen both on a personal and broader scale.

Further, while it’s not possible to measure the exact economic benefit of diverting food waste to programs to feed hungry people, we do know that programs that benefit families who are struggling to put food on the tables will have a larger positive socio-economic impact over time.

Another economic benefit of diverting food-waste away from landfill is job creation. Waste diversion efforts such as recycling, and compost create 9 times more jobs than sending material to landfill. This is achieved through the additional collection, processing, and production processes. When food-waste is used to create a valuable resource such as compost, it can be reused, thus contributing to the circular economy.

How can we reduce food waste?

When we look at the source of food-waste, we learn that there is an opportunity to minimize food waste during every face of the supply chain. Taking action to reduce food waste requires a strategic approach, which is where the Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy comes in. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (The EPA) created this hierarchy, which is now widely accepted on a global level as the best approach to minimizing food waste. Each tier represents the preferable strategy that we should be taking in recovering food-waste and preventing food loss.

The highest tier of the hierarchy is represented by source reduction. In food production, this can encompass reducing the food that is rejected due to cosmetic abnormalities. In our homes, this can look like repurposing leftovers, instead of tossing them into the bin.

After we’ve made every effort to reduce food-waste at the source, the second most favourable option for food recovery is to feed hungry people. This is typically achieved by donating food that will not be otherwise consumed to charitable organizations such as food banks or food share programs.

The third tier of the hierarchy is to feed animals. A popular example we see that would fall into this category is when breweries donate their spent grains to farmers which, are often used to feed livestock such as pigs. While many farms have strict regulations on what foods their animals are able to eat and this is not always an option, it is an important opportunity for food waste reduction that should still be prioritized.

The fourth and following approach for food waste recovery and reduction is industrial use. This encompasses providing waste oils for rendering and fuel conversion and using food scraps for digestion to recover energy. This is most typically achieved through a process known as anaerobic digestion, which is a process, where microorganisms break down organic materials (in this case, food scraps), in the absence of oxygen. The end product is biogas, and a soil amendment. Of course, industrial use is not an option that consumers can actively participate in their own homes. However, working with municipalities and other levels of government, we can encourage innovative investment in these technologies, so that food-waste can be collected at the curb alongside waste and recycling, and sent to an industrial facility for processing.

The fifth tier of the Food-Waste Recovery Hierarchy is compost. Compost is a soil amendment created by managing oxygen, temperature, and moisture levels in food waste biodegradation, typically combined with a bulking agent (ex: saw dust, woodchips etc.). Many municipalities offer residential food-waste collection, however in areas where this is unavailable, consumers do have the option to consider creating a home compost system as well. Compost can be created using traditional digestion methods in the backyard, or by utilizing new kitchen technologies that will quickly create a natural soil amendment using your food scraps. These technologies implement the use of a small countertop composting appliances that can be used in your home kitchen. Compost is often referred to as “black gold” and is a fantastic way to use food scraps to nourish the earth, participating in the circular economy.

Lastly, the sixth and final option for food waste management is landfill. Ultimately, we want to avoid sending food waste and other organic materials to landfill as much as possible. This is a last resort, only to be considered when all other tiers of the food waste recovery hierarchy have been exhausted.

How are we making a change at Waste Solutions?

Our team at Waste Solutions is committed to living out our values in our daily lives. That is why we have taken the Food Waste Pledge from Waste Reduction Week in Canada. By taking this pledge we are committed to:

  • Taking concrete actions in our homes to reduce our food waste. This will be achieved by:
    • Meal planning
    • Only buying what we need and safely storing food to maintain freshness
    • Monitoring “Best Before” dates
  • Ensuring the food that does end up being wasted of is never sent to landfill. This will be achieved by:
    • Finding new ways to use leftovers whenever possible
    • Focusing on the food waste recovery hierarchy and composting when we can
  • Educating and encouraging our entire team to reduce their food waste by:
    • Establishing a weekly tradition of “Food-Waste Friday,” through which our staff will be provided
      with facts about food-waste and tips on reducing theirs
    • Incentivizing food-waste reduction amongst our staff through internal team building contests
      and competitions
  • Supporting our clients across North America in reducing their food waste by:
    • Completing waste audits to measure and manage the solid waste stream
    • Launching and managing food-waste programs
    • Providing educational tools and support to their teams to maximize program compliance
    • Utilizing innovative waste handling technology to process food-waste

We believe that change begins with just one step, and our team is eager to take that first step towards change. Taking small actions today to create a solid foundation for our entire team to make a difference is our goal. Together, we can reduce food waste, and impact change.

The future of food-waste in Canada

Let’s revisit the holiday feast we were talking about earlier. Imagine yourself sitting at that festive table, surrounded by family and friends, ready to dive in to a delicious homecooked meal, enjoying this moment with the ones you love most. Now, we rewind the earlier scenario, and undo the wasted food, and instead focus on what you put on your own plate. Knowing what you know now about food waste do you do anything differently than you might have before?

Perhaps, you’ll start with a smaller serving, with the goal of scraping less leftovers in the waste bin at the end of the day. Or maybe, you’ll give a second thought to your favourite dishes, considering how you can reuse them for leftovers. Now, you have the opportunity to prove that knowledge truly is power and make a difference.

The future of food-waste depends on how each and every one of use this information to change our habits – big and small – in our every day lives. We must work together to shift our thinking and see food-waste not as garbage, but as a valuable resource.