Food Waste: The 2020 Guide

Written by: Page Chartrand – HNS Student @ UofM

Edited by: Chantal Perchotte - HNS Student @ UofM

What is food waste? Where does it occur? Why is it such a big deal? These are questions I asked myself at the start of my waste reduction journey. Now a couple years in, I feel prepared to start the discussion on food waste as well as share what I’ve learned along the way. Food waste is such an important topic, especially now as the holidays are approaching (and not to mention during a global pandemic!). Here, I will outline what I feel to be the most important facts, questions, and strategies revolving around this important topic. Enjoy!

What is food waste?

Food waste is any food type that has been wasted along the food supply chain. Food is typically wasted (or lost) at different points in the supply chain and so there are two unique definitions to differentiate between them.

Food Loss – Food that has been wasted during the early stages of the food supply chain, typically during production or transportation. In these stages, we typically see less food that has expired, and more foods that have been physically damaged or lost.

Food waste – Foods, typically post production, that have gone bad. Waste in this category is normally seen as expired or spoiled foods in stores, restaurants, and homes.

There is also differentiation between food waste that is edible (or avoidable food waste) versus foods that are not edible (un-avoidable food waste). Unavoidable food waste contributes 37% of total food waste and includes things like bones, coffee grounds, shells, etc. [1]. This means that 63% of food that is wasted in Canada is avoidable.

Nationally, more than $49 billion worth of food products are sent to landfill or composted EACH YEAR [2]. This issue does not only take a toll on the economy, but also the environment.

Where does food waste happen?

Food loss and waste, both avoidable and unavoidable, occur at all stages of the food supply chain. To better answer this question, I’ve attached an infographic (see below) which provides a great visual to showcase food waste/loss down the supply chain, and the prevalence at each step.

Why is food waste happening?

There are many factors associated with this question, and unfortunately, many of them begin in the kitchen. Over cooking (cooking more food than needed), over purchasing, and lack of food safety education are just some of the reasons why food waste is so prevalent today.

Overcooking and over purchasing food are common in households with many people (especially with many different preferences, allergies, or restrictions). Lack of proper planning and preparation is another reason why these issues are occurring. Luckily, this is an extremely easy fix!

Another big issue revolves around food safety education. I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase “If you’re not sure, throw it out”. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, many food safety professionals use this term (or an equivalent) to explain that it is safer, if you don’t know if a certain food product is safe to consume, to throw it away instead of ingesting the food and potentially becoming sick. Now, this is completely legitimate advice, and it should be followed! However, with proper food safety education, we could see a decrease in food waste since we would have a better understanding of when foods actually go bad.

Consequences of Food waste

Most people throw away their spoiled or expired food and it goes directly to the landfill. Foods that are sent to the landfill go through a degradation process that produces a high volume of methane gas. This methane gas is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases as it is 30x more potent than carbon dioxide [3]. Roughly 11% of greenhouse gas emissions coming from food systems can be diverted by just terminating food waste. This is the equivalent to 27 million cars off the road [4]. Contrarily, the aerobic process of composting does not produce the harmful methane that degrade in the landfill (typically anaerobic processes) [5]. Composting produces carbon dioxide through the aerobic processes and can divert upwards of 60-80% methane gas from the atmosphere.

Additionally, we produce enough food globally to comfortably feed everyone on the planet, yet almost 700 million people go hungry [6]. This is a staggering statistic that shows the importance of curbing food waste.

How has COVID-19 impacted food waste?

According to a recent study done by Dalhousie University, the average home is currently wasting upwards of $2000 per year on food (over $200 more since the pandemic has begun). Their research saw a 13.5% increase in food wasted nationally since the pandemic started, which is huge. A possible reason for this steep increase could be due to the amount of time we spend at home. Do you recall the big baking craze at the beginning of the pandemic? I do (many sourdough starters were born and perished during that time!). Apart from that, many people have begun cooking from home at a lot more. This could have implications of food waste due to many of the reasons listed.

What can we do?

Now we’ve reached the all-encompassing question: what can we do about food waste in our homes?