Do you know how much food you waste in a month? Do you know how much food is wasted before that product gets to your favourite grocery store? If you don’t have answers for these questions, this article will provide interesting information about food waste, how it became a global issue, and the initiatives that are trying to reduce this problem.

The facts are overwhelming.  Our global population is currently 7.5 billion people and it will be 9.7 billion by 2050, according to the UN. With our growing population combined with our wasteful consumption habits, food waste has reached a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes, one third of the entire food production. If nothing is done to reduce this rate, the amount of wasted food will become overwhelming and perhaps uncontrollable as population growth requires increasing food production.

From an environmental perspective, the Food and Agriculture Organization states that the global GHG emissions of food waste has come up to 3.3 gigatons per year, which if compared to total country emissions would rank as the third largest emitter in the world (behind the US and China!).

From landfill to life cycle thinking

When thinking of food waste, piles of garbage in a landfill come to mind immediately. However, food waste is not only what goes to landfill, it encompasses all the resources that are used to produce that food. From growing, harvesting, processing, transporting, and selling; resources such as water, energy, labour, and land are part of this wastage.

Food going to landfill comes from different sources and packaging used in every step of the supply chain can influence part of this waste. However, despite common belief, packaging accounts for a smaller impact on the environment than wasted food. In addition, packaging can reduce the risk of food waste by protecting the product from natural elements, and smart and innovative packaging like modified atmosphere packaging; can also extend the life span of food.

Wasteful culture and consumer behaviour

It is hard to understand how there are so many initiatives that aim to reduce negative environmental impacts (reducing, reusing, recycling, composting), yet we have let food waste become a global issue. First, there are distinct differences when looking at wastage in developing countries and developed countries. According to FAO, developing countries lose over 40% of food during post-harvest and processing, and developed countries lose over 40% during retail and consumer stages. However, this could mean an opportunity for global reduction as both can learn better practices from each other. In addition, consumer behaviour greatly influences the rate at which food is wasted. Factors such as demographics, lifestyle, frequency, quantity, distribution channel, and so on can explain how and why this problem has gotten to this point. For example, people have become accustomed to bulk buying and only consuming a portion of the product. Beyond the environmental impact that this implies, bulk buying can have a negative financial impact on the consumer.

Policy shifts

Policies and regulations at international and national levels are also key to preventing, reducing food waste, and diverting from landfill.  The moment has come when the world has realized that the food waste problem has to be tackled on a large scale. As part of the sustainable development goals, the UN has set up Goal 12 to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns that includes targets related to food waste such as halve the per capita global food waste of retail and consumer levels by 2030.

On a national scale, National Zero Waste Council (NZWC) will implement a National Food Waste Strategy in Canada in 2018 according to information given during a consultation webinar. This strategy includes several initiatives under 3 main pillars: policy, innovation, and behavioral change. First, NZWC aims to set a national target for food waste reduction, tax incentives for food donators, and promote a ban for organics disposal. Moreover, the Council will continue to support technology and business innovation of products and services. Finally, the strategy includes the national campaign Love Food Hate Waste that targets behavioral change of consumers and businesses through education and communication.

Municipalities such as Quebec City are stepping up and banning organics disposal by 2020 and other jurisdictions, including Ontario, are considering the same. Landfill bans may also drive new markets for Anaerobic Digestion facilities, which can further contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through clean energy recovery from organic waste.

In addition, there are many private sector efforts to promote food waste prevention to close the loop and move towards a circular economy. For example:

  • E-learning programs and educational tools for farmers that target the prevention of food loss in the postharvest stage of the supply chain.
  • A three-year initiative project in the U.S brings several brands together such as Campbell’s and The Cheese Cake Factory in order to increase food donations to food banks, and to divert waste from landfills for animal feed.
  • Replacement of cardboard boxes during raw material transportation for reusable and recyclable plastic containers that improve temperature control and reduce physical damage.
  • Design of a small strip that absorbs ethylene that is used to slow down the degradation of fruit such as strawberries, mangoes, or kiwis gives extends the time of consumption.
  • Business models centered around “ugly” food that aims to change consumers perception that only flawless food is worth purchasing and eating.

Given the amount of food that is currently wasted, it would be futile to stick to separate efforts in order to achieve ambitious goals such as reducing food waste by half in less than 15 years. All the stakeholders involved starting from governments, food waste managers, producers, retailers, and consumers have to be accountable for the environmental impacts that food waste generates, and thus be involved in the creation and support of holistic and circular strategies around food that target source reduction and prevention, diversion, reuse, and composting.