Why Do Canadians Throw Away 6 Million Tonnes of Groceries Every Year?

In 2015, I resolved to waste less food. It was harder than I thought

Illustration by Sonia Roy
Illustration by Sonia Roy

In early January, we drove back to Toronto, ready to face the new year. Invariably, the return from my father-in-law’s cottage begins with a purge. Despite my best efforts to clear the fridge before we leave, there is almost always something rotting at the back. The perishables, now softening and weeping, offended my new-year sensibilities: this was the time for fresh starts, shelves and drawers wiped clean.

Here’s what I found: Half a red pepper, now bleeding orange into a saran-wrap shroud. Two flaccid celery stalks from the heart, leaves still attached. Horseradish cream from Christmas Eve. Cranberry sauce, growing spots of mould on its glistening surface. Unidentified dipping sauce from a long-forgotten takeout order. Half a pomegranate. The inner seeds could have been salvaged, but I’d already bought a firm, glossy fruit to replace it; out with the old and in with the new.

The holidays are always a time of excess. At my in-laws’ cottage, three or four families converge, each with its own fleet of coolers, culinary idiosyncrasies, and EpiPens. There are the Costco parents with hungry teenagers who buy oversized plastic clamshells that hold a dozen croissants. The retired grandparents who treat food procurement as a hobby, stockpiling high-end quiches and salads from Toronto’s gourmet shops. And then us, bearing leftovers from a Christmas dinner for eighteen, plus many more ingredients to feed the crowd up north. By the time we pack up, we have barely made a dent in our provisions.

The amount of food wasted on these cottage visits has always bothered me. It’s noticeable not just because there’s so much of it, but also because it doesn’t magically get picked up by a truck at the side of our country road. We must drive our (unsorted) garbage to the dump, where it gets tossed on a mile-high midden.

As someone who has been writing about food issues for twenty years, I knew how much energy went into producing and transporting my dinner from gate to plate. I knew that any “good” decisions we were making in our conscientious shopping efforts (preferring local, naturally raised, organic ingredients) were more than negated by the kitchen waste we invariably threw out each week.

I also knew that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations had reported that there is enough produced on this planet to feed the 795 million people who go hungry, and that reducing waste will be key to feeding the 9 billion people who will populate the earth by 2050.

So I resolved that 2015 would be my year of wasting less. That I would pay closer attention to the contents of my green bin each week—to better understand what we were throwing out and why. Aside from the work of a handful of academics, precious little research has examined the factors that influence kitchen waste at the consumer level, let alone the 50 percent that takes place higher up the food chain, at farms, processing plants, and distribution centres. The black box of the green bin needs our attention. We are, after all, what we waste. Archaeologists study the garbage of ancient peoples to learn about their lives, their beliefs, and their values. When they examine our middens, I wonder, what will future archaeologists have to say about us?

Nearly six kilograms: that’s how much food my household threw out in the first week of our new waste-monitoring regimen. Divided by four (I have a husband and two preteen daughters), it works out to one and a half kilograms each per week. As a family, we were wasting a whopping 312 kilograms per year.

Which means we were wasting money, too. According to a recent report from Value Chain Management International, a consulting firm in Oakville, Ontario, we Canadians waste about $31 billion each year in food, or about $861 per person. Add in the garbage from hospitals, schools, and other institutions that don’t publish their waste numbers, and it’s clear that the real per capita number is well into four figures.

In my house, the fridge has always been my responsibility, and its contents tend to reflect my state of mind. When I shop, I rarely do so with a list, unless I’m cooking for an elaborate dinner party and can’t afford to screw up. But my ambitions as a cook often outstrip the realities of life as a working mother of two. Jerusalem artichokes and fresh fava beans seem like a good idea at the supermarket; at home, on a weeknight, there’s never enough time to prepare them. Guess where they end up two weeks later.

In the kitchen, I’ve always had a cavalier attitude toward quantity; I rarely measure or follow recipes. And since nobody wants to run out of food, I usually err on the side of preparing too much. It’s strange how those of us who have never been truly hungry can harbour such an irrational fear of ever letting anybody—child, husband, guest—leave the table without being overstuffed. For the comfortable classes, at least, there is shame in running out of even a single dish when you entertain.

It turned out I had a problem with rice—basmati rice grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and aged for two years, to be exact. Despite its quality, this exotic varietal is still relatively cheap at a few dollars per kilogram. Just as most of us have forgotten our nineteenth-century recipes that make use of stale bread, I rarely make fried rice from the leftovers. Instead, they become experimental mould farms. Stale crusts proliferate in our breadbox, as magically as single socks disappear in the dryer. Dairy lingers long past its expiry date: sour cream, buttermilk, and whipping cream, all special-occasion items purchased and half-used for a birthday celebration or Sunday morning fry-up, then pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten.

Discarded meat is among the most egregious forms of food waste. This was the waste I did notice, even before we began weighing it. An eight-ounce steak requires 4,664 litres of water to produce. Because we buy the cheapest cuts, meat servings inevitably represent several hours of kitchen labour, too—all that marinating and stewing requires an investment in time.

As in most Canadian households, wilting, rotting produce accounted for the majority of the weight in our green bin during our six-month experiment. While my daughters, Emma and Rowan, were willing to record numbers in our log book, and to organize our freezer (another place to bury kitchen dreams), they wanted nothing to do with the acrid-smelling bags of organic waste I was measuring on the fancy scale a chef friend convinced me to buy years ago. And who could blame them? The garbage bags were usually too heavy to register, which meant I had to divide the leaky mess into batches. A half-eaten bag of McIntosh apples gone mealy. The top third of a pineapple, fermenting on a plate. Once-fresh basil, putrefied.

Emma and Rowan, who were too young to know any different when I chronicled our family’s attempts to live on a 100-mile diet for the Globe and Mail in 2007, were now mortified by the prospect of having their leftovers catalogued in a national magazine. Emma, my eldest, took it upon herself to finish Rowan’s plates when necessary. “Do you want her to photograph that? ” she’d ask incredulously, pointing at four remaining spoonfuls of risotto in her sister’s bowl.

Emma embraced the project with the zeal of a twelve-year-old on the cusp of political and environmental awareness. She insisted we begin serving ourselves at dinner, in order to get our own portion sizes right. Together, we drew up meal plans for the week, so that I could shop more efficiently. She also collected up all the lemon and lime halves that lurked in our fridge and put them in a resealable container in plain view, so that we wouldn’t cut into a new piece of citrus every time we needed a wedge.

According to Kate Parizeau, a waste scholar at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, the average middle-class households she monitors are even more wasteful than ours. Consumer food waste, she says, tends to reflect socio-economic status. Households with children—notorious half-eaters—tend to waste more than those without. And rich people waste more than poor people, in part because the richer you are, the more you can afford to waste. (This distinction may be less meaningful than it sounds, since the wealthy are also more likely to buy perishable, rather than processed, foods—and processed items tend to be associated with waste lower down on the chain, before they reach the consumer.)

For Parizeau, who grew up close to a landfill near Sarnia, Ontario, waste was never invisible: she would watch trucks drive to and from the landfill, and she still remembers the sulphureous smell of rubbish wafting into her backyard. Though she began her graduate career studying community-based waste management in Cambodia, she has more recently been studying middle-class Canadian household habits, trying to figure out why residents would put “macabre fruit baskets”—as she and her graduate students call the medleys of near-perfect apples and bananas they find among coffee grinds—out on the curb.

Like me, 82 percent of her respondents thought they were buying just the right amount of food for their households, and were blind to the possibility that they might be overbuying, perhaps because they’d been influenced by marketers. Of the third who bought foods on sale, 72 percent thought they “never” or “infrequently” wasted them.

Perhaps we choose not to see the waste we create because it makes us so uncomfortable. The majority of Parizeau’s respondents reported that they felt far more guilt about food waste than they did about the other kinds of garbage their households generated. Some of this guilt was tied up with environmental or economic worries, but the most common concern was that food waste was, to quote her survey terminology, a “social problem”—which is to say, on a gut level, there is something about shovelling food into the garbage that just doesn’t sit right with our sense of social justice, given that so many people around the world, and even down the street, still go hungry every day.

You can almost see the Shops at Don Mills from the Community Share Food Bank on Overland Drive in suburban Toronto. In my mind’s eye, I can picture celebrity chef Mark McEwan’s upscale grocery store in the California-style mall, where women cradling Prada bags finger olive oils as expensive as the perfumes they wear.

Back on Overland, in the parking lot behind the Church of the Ascension, six men have formed a line from the side of the truck up the steps and into the church gymnasium, where a team of about two dozen volunteers is dispensing boxes of food from a stage crammed with seven refrigerators, six freezers, and makeshift shelving and cupboards. The first man in the line catches an eleven-kilogram box of melons that Second Harvest, a non-profit food rescue organization, picked up from the Ontario Food Terminal yesterday. He is a medical doctor from Colombia who can’t practise here. He passes it to the next man in line, an engineer from Armenia. On the box goes, down a receiving line of volunteer clients who live on the margins of society. Today they will hand off nearly a tonne of perishables in a matter of minutes. A mere nothing in the grander scheme of the food system.

Boxes of deli meat, rescued from Sobeys’ massive distribution centre east of Toronto, with a best-before date of February 9—still more than two weeks away. Tropical juices. Bags of apples. Bananas. Cookies. Clear, oversized garbage bags of high-end bread, picked up that morning, are the lightest items to go down the line. “The amount of bread we get . . .” says Bill Hullah, the volunteer who founded the Overland food bank twelve years ago, “I don’t know how you run a business that way.” (Here’s a clue: find customers willing to pay $8.99 for a loaf of sourdough.)

From a logistical perspective, the global food system is a miracle of modern technology. Ingredients are grown all over the world and trucked and shipped and flown to massive distribution centres in a matter of days. They are washed and chopped and cooked and processed into standardized units that are cellophaned and clamshelled and boxed in picturesque packages. Atul Gawande, a medical writer for The New Yorker, once drafted an article lauding the industry’s high levels of standardization, and argued that the health care industry could learn from the impressively uniform systems created by fast food. He has a point: Big Food’s systems are amazingly good at delivering the same products day in and day out, in grocery stores, at takeout counters, and in restaurants all over the world. But the uniformity and perfection consumers demand come at a major cost.

We chase standardization in food the same way the fashion industry chases supermodels. The difference is that grocers can’t airbrush the produce we buy off the shelves. If the banana, the potato, or the carrot isn’t grown to a grocery store’s or processor’s specifications, it’s tossed. If cows yield more milk than a dairy farmer can legally sell in our supply-management system, that milk goes down the drain. Even in the free market, American dairy farmers have been dumping an unprecedented amount this year because of a global glut. The greater the supply, the lower the price—and the more likely it will be wasted.

For thirty years, Second Harvest, the largest food rescue program in the country, has been collecting food that would otherwise be tossed and delivering it to agencies and shelters and food banks to feed hungry people. Every half-kilogram rescued makes one meal. Last year, its fleet of refrigerated trucks rescued more than 3 million kilograms, feeding 100,000 people each month.

To see where all of this was coming from, I spent the day picking up perishables with Sami Abdurahim, a Second Harvest driver. (Full disclosure: I volunteered for the non-profit for about five years in the early 2000s.) Abdurahim, who emigrated from Ethiopia in 1998 and is a former chef, has been driving Second Harvest trucks for nine years. But driver doesn’t begin to describe what he does for a living. Off the truck, he must act as an ambassador, cultivating relationships with donors (who could decide at any time that packing up perishables for him isn’t worth the trouble), take stock of inventory, and figure out which foods will go to which agencies in need. He’s effectively a one-man logistics management team. Most of what he picks up gets distributed to agencies and shelters within twenty-four hours; all of it is gone in a matter of days.

Our first pickup was at Sobeys’ 418,000-square-foot distribution centre in Whitby, which supplies about a third of Ontario’s perishable groceries. Nearly 500 truckloads a week deliver inventory as far east as Ottawa and as far north as Manitoulin Island.

Abdurahim has a good relationship with Mike Murray, the damage coordinator for the facility. A tall man with thinning grey hair and a moustache that reminds me of John Cleese, Murray came to Second Harvest fourteen years ago because he wanted to trim his disposal costs.

“You can help us,” said Murray, “and we can help you.” Second Harvest now picks up as much as 2,300 kilograms of perishables once a week. Another agency, St. Vincent Pallotti’s soup kitchen in Oshawa, picks up eight to twelve pallets on Wednesdays (each bearing 360 to 450 kilograms).

“When I started, what you see here in front of you, I’d say about three-quarters of it would go in the garbage. I had a real problem with that,” said Murray, combing through a pallet of perishables ready for loading on the truck. “Some of the stuff, I kid you not, is better quality than what you would get in the store.”

There are cases of SunFed’s “Perfect Peppers,” triple-washed and trucked in from Arizona. Mangoes from Peru. Trays of Liberté yogourt from Quebec. He holds up some Schneider’s deli meat with a best-before date that’s two and a half weeks away—too short a shelf life to justify sending it to grocery stores. “We have to allow a certain amount of weeks of this product being in the store,” he said.

A relatively light haul of perishables has been set aside for Abdurahim. Food waste, says Murray, is seasonal, and the period between New Year’s and barbecue season is much slower. “Our quality assessment team has to inspect every stick of produce that comes into this facility,” he explained. If the team takes one “inner” out of a tray of tomatoes to cut up for inspection, the remainder of the case is sent to stores, with a credit slip attached: it’s too expensive to repackage. Or at least the bean counters at HQ think it is. “If I have to send out a recall,” said Murray, “because I accidentally sent something out that’s too close to code, now I’m sending a truck out there for a second time.” Murray can’t afford to make such mistakes: “Diesel is a huge, huge cost in this industry. It’s all about transportation.”

That tray of tomatoes Murray described perfectly captures the perverse incentives programmed into the global food-distribution system. Managers down the chain have the ability to penalize their suppliers on the slimmest of quality-control pretexts; retailers can penalize distributors if they don’t like the look of the inventory, and distributors reportedly penalize farmers if crops don’t meet their exact specifications. (Dana Gunders of the National Resources Defense Council in California has estimated that about 7 percent of planted crops in the United States are never harvested—but for some crops, waste can be much higher. This is how baby carrots first came to market: a farmer who found that 70 percent of his crop was being rejected for aesthetic reasons cut his carrots into “baby” sizes and was able to sell them for nearly three times the price.) To avoid such penalties, every player in the system is motivated to reject any batch of food that might contain a trace of imperfection.

Even if all that rejected food were to make its way to rescue organizations or farms, it’s an incredibly inefficient way to run a system. And non-profits such as Second Harvest can save only so much. Their limiting factor isn’t the amount of food available in the Greater Toronto Area. It’s the number of trucks (currently seven) they can afford to operate.

Martin Gooch of Value Chain Management International, a global food consulting company, believes that everyone loses out in the current system—even the companies who see routine waste as simply a cost of doing business. Originally from rural Warwickshire, England, Gooch began his career working on farms in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, where he helped businesses reduce costs and maximize profits. In 2000, he began analyzing food waste and noticed that the companies with the highest margins of waste were also the least efficient. In a 2010 paper, “Food Waste in Canada,” he and his colleagues conclude that avoidable waste increases the cost of food by 10 percent or more. A 2014 follow-up report suggests that companies could reduce operating costs by 15 to 20 percent—and increase profitability by 5 to 11 percent—just by tackling the problem.

But the highly competitive relationship along the food chain promotes a spirit of distrust, with each player using perceived imperfections as an opportunity to push down prices. Or, as one anonymous industry expert puts it in the 2014 report, “Consumers are busy picking off deals, while retailers and suppliers are busy picking off each other.” Even when players are operating in good faith, it can be difficult for them to get a clear picture of how and where they are earning their money because the food chain is so complex. “We make rational decisions in isolation,” says Gooch. “But from an overall systems perspective, they are irrational.”

“Volume is king,” he continues. “There is a desire to reduce the cost of food by selling more, and a consumer desire to buy more for less. We’ve made price a key factor in whether we buy one food over another.” We may be able to buy more for less, but if we’re throwing out more of that food, we’re wasting more dollars, too.

And therein lies the rub. Data from Statistics Canada and the World Bank show that food waste has generally tracked the rise of per capita income in the period since World War II. When something comes cheap, we just don’t value it.

Abdurahim pulls his truck off the highway and into the Ontario Food Terminal, which bills itself as Canada’s stock exchange for produce. Here, wholesalers set the province’s independent retail prices for tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers on any given day. Produce from all over the Americas arrives around the clock. By 6 a.m., the “houses,” as the wholesalers’ twenty-one warehouses are called, are buzzing with activity. Pallet movers zoom up and down the horseshoe corridor, delivering produce to loading docks. Buyers come from as far away as Montreal to shop here for restaurants and grocery stores. It’s the third-largest depot for fruits and vegetables in North America, and the largest in Canada.

By early afternoon, sales are beginning to slow, and the pallet movers start moving in one direction, down the long corridor toward the dump. “You never know what you’ll get,” says Abdurahim, watching them race past our loading dock. Despite the large volumes of waste generated by the terminal, getting producers onside to donate their rejects to Second Harvest is still a work-in-progress. The non-profit, along with a fellow organization, Daily Bread Food Bank, has a man on the ground at the terminal to walk the beat, just like the buyers do. When I return a few weeks later, I learn that you need the mindset of a buyer. Guarnieri, who sits on the Ontario Food Terminal Board, was instrumental in bringing in the rescue organizations. “You’ve got to show your face here. That’s part of the relationship building. Walking the beat is a huge, huge thing.”

Even so, plenty of good produce still ends up in the terminal’s Dumpsters. “Some producers are embarrassed to give stuff away,” she explains. Accustomed to the high standards of restaurant chefs, they don’t want their names going out on second-rate bananas. “The skin has to be perfect.”

I’d come back to the terminal to follow the fruit and vegetable misfits that didn’t make it onto the truck. Gary Da Silva, the operations manager, met me at a loading dock flanked by a series of twenty-five-yard Dumpsters, each of which holds up to eighteen tonnes. Distributors at the terminal pay into a collective fund for disposal, so there isn’t much incentive to reduce waste: it costs as little as $20 per 450 kilograms to send to the landfill. That’s a few cents per kilogram. Food no longer considered edible by human standards can be shipped to farms for livestock feed. But with the price so low, it’s often more cost efficient simply to throw the stuff out.

“We used to recycle more,” said Da Silva, “but the city gave us a hard time in terms of waste water.” Now the terminal is required to dispose of the liquids, too.

There are other challenges. Anything wrapped has to go to landfill; broccoli tied up with elastic bands and twist ties, pineapples tagged with recipe cards, and baby spinach packed in clamshells are hog hazards. “Twenty years ago, it was a lot different,” said Da Silva. Produce came in boxes, not prepackaged and prewashed. “Everybody wants things in a clamshell. But at the same time, people want us to recycle. Dollars and cents, it doesn’t work out. It’s just the way it is.”

About 95 percent of US food waste now ends up in landfills or incinerators. Half a kilogram of buried food produces about two kilograms of methane, the by-product of anaerobic microbial digestion. Methane, of course, is a greenhouse gas. And because food is 75 to 90 percent moisture, it becomes a toxic soup when left to rot there, leaching into the soil, destroying its pH balance and creating acidified runoff. The very stuff that nourishes us is killing the soil we need to grow it.

The good news is that more and more Canadian communities are finally beginning to divert from landfills. Torontonians in single-home dwellings began separating their organic waste in 2002, filling green bins that are picked up weekly for industrial-scale composting. Metro Vancouver began separating its organic waste earlier this year. Although Calgary doesn’t yet operate a diversion program for its residents, entrepreneurs are beginning to fill the gap. Kevin Davies, twenty-three, launched Hop in Calgary earlier this year. The company transforms kitchen rubbish from restaurants and grocery stores into high-end compost for organic farmers and gardeners. And plenty of citizens without access to such programs still compost their own coffee grinds and kitchen trimmings in their backyards.

But while composting is a great way to divert kitchen trimmings, it’s merely a Band-Aid solution to a systemic problem. The best strategy is to reduce the amount of waste we generate in the first place.

Why is it so hard to keep track of what’s in the refrigerator? In my house, we seem to open and close the door 500 times a day, each of us staring into it as if it were some kind of oracle that will tell us what we want. Despite this constant attention, despite our best intentions, something always lingers at the back. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the global Slow Food movement, likens the refrigerator to a family tomb, preserving the dead and the half-dead, chilling the smell of rot so we can go about our days unaware of the garbage piling up inside.

Nearly every summer since my father gave me a canoe for my twenty-first birthday—more than half of my life now—I have paddled and portaged through Northwest Territories, Ontario, and Quebec. It’s pretty much the only time of year our waste drops significantly, because we know that any food we don’t eat will have to be portaged out as garbage. The prospect of carrying your own refuse has a way of focusing the mind. I’m not suggesting we all begin portaging our groceries and garbage. But it’s interesting to note how easily we can modify our habits when the rules of the game change.

At bottom, the problem facing the industry and the consumers it serves is the same: we need a change of mindset. Until relatively recently, widespread crop failure and famine were common, and food scarcity was a major limiting factor on population growth. Our grandparents regarded food as something very precious. It wasn’t until fifty years ago that obesity became a greater threat to public health than starvation in developed countries. Suddenly, for many Westerners, the problem with food was that there was too much of it.

As a result, the very thing that gives us life—our daily bread—became disposable at virtually every link in the food chain. The generations that grew up during the Depression and the world wars gave birth to generations that expect abundance and excess as some kind of birthright. As recently as 1969, food accounted for 19 percent of the average Canadian households spending. By 2009, it was just 10 percent, about a quarter less than we spend on transportation. Waste is not just a symptom of wealth. It’s also a symbol.

But if we could change our habits so dramatically in one short century, for the worse, surely we could do as much for the better. It would mean ignoring the market’s rock-bottom price signals and following the voices in the back of our heads that tell us to conserve today’s plenty for tomorrow’s famine. Even if that famine never comes, it’s an instinct that would serve us well to obey.

Human consumption patterns can change quickly when consumers are motivated by a shared sense of social purpose. In California, residents responded to the drought by reducing water usage by 27 percent in June, largely through eliminating overuse. We could set similar goals for food waste.

To set goals, though, governments and industry groups first need better ways of measuring and quantifying the true costs of waste. We need impact reports to shame us out of making bad decisions and encourage us to celebrate the good ones. Organizations such as Second Harvest need more resources to rescue food. And in some cases, we may need legislation. This year, France passed a law forcing supermarkets to give unsold groceries to charity.

Most of all, we need to ascribe more value to our food instead of finding ways to cheapen it. This is easier said than done. I had high hopes that my own six-month experiment would create a sea change in our household. It was more like a gentle swell. We did start planning our meals in more detail, which led to less impulse buying at the grocery store. We also began clearing out the fridge and freezer more regularly, so that we wouldn’t forget what they housed. And we made more of an effort to cook from the fridge, responding to what we already had instead of buying whatever we felt like at that moment. This meant converting mealy apples into a fruit crisp rather than buying another dessert for dinner. Or transforming a rock-hard baguette into olive-oil brushed crostini and homemade bread crumbs. It meant buying the corn at the grocery store without undressing it first, and simply cutting out any bad kernels before the cobs were boiled. And it meant getting over the social pressure to provide a groaning table of food that I knew we’d never finish.

While weighing yet another load of kitchen garbage on my scale, I remembered something Kevin Davies told me when I was visiting him in Calgary. “When you make people’s personal influence observable, they actually believe that their impact counts,” he said. “If there’s any common feeling with sustainability, it’s that most of us feel our efforts don’t make a dent in the scale of the issue. But the reality is that it isn’t true. Simple actions scale. Masses of people together amount to something quite large.”

Our family of four managed to get our weekly organic waste below the five-kilogram mark, achieving a 17 percent reduction from our six-kilogram baseline. It didn’t take a whole lot of effort—just a bit more organization and planning. This works out to about 250 grams per week for each family member, the same weight as a single serving of steak. If the rest of Canada did the same, we’d collectively save nearly half a million tonnes a year. When you consider that every half-kilogram Second Harvest rescues translates into one meal for someone hungry, this simple action could, theoretically, represent one billion meals.

It’s a big number to contemplate when you have only one kitchen, one refrigerator, one pantry. But this is where the battle takes place. And this is where it can be won, one flaccid celery stalk at a time.

This appeared in the October 2015 issue.

Sasha Chapman
Sasha Chapman is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and was previously a senior editor at The Walrus.
Sonia Roy
Sonia Roy (soniaroy.com) won Best Illustration at the 2015 Kenneth R. Wilson Awards for trade publications.