TVO: Good things go to waste in Ontario

Supermarkets and consumers waste tonnes of food every day. Here’s what the provincial government and the private sector are doing about it

Green bin programs are good at diverting waste from landfills, but some experts believe consumers must learn to waste less food in the first place. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

Green bin programs are good at diverting waste from landfills, but some experts believe consumers must learn to waste less food in the first place. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

Last year, Josh Domingues read a statistic that changed his life: “If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S.”

A few months later, Domingues, an entrepreneur and former investment manager, launched an app called Flashfood, which lets shoppers know what supermarket food is about to expire, buy it at a discount through the app, and pick it up from the store that day.

The average grocery store in Canada throws out $2,500 to $4,000 worth of food every day, Domingues says. Much of that winds up in landfills. When it starts to rot, the food releases methane — a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“Employees are taking money — food — they’re throwing it in the garbage, and then you’re paying a company to come pick up your money and take it away,” Domingues says. “So instead of that, why not try to sell some of the money and get a return on it?”

Domingues isn’t the only one trying to tackle waste in Ontario. The provincial government is on the case, too: it released a discussion paper last week, seeking input on ways to solve the problem. It notes that, in 2014, $31 billion worth of food went to waste in Canada — that works out to $868 per person.

“We’re throwing out far too much good stuff,” says Mike von Massow of the University of Guelph’s food, agricultural, and resource economics department. “Helping people understand how to reduce what they throw out could have great environmental impacts, could have significant cost impacts at the municipal level, and is fundamentally what, I think, the provincial initiative is trying to get to.”

Ontario allocated $600,000 in the 2017 budget to the Supermarket Recovery Program, a pilot project aimed at redistributing to those who need it. It’ll provide grants to food banks and food-rescue organizations — like Second Harvest, in Toronto — to expand their transport and storage capacities.

“The big issue with food waste and surplus food is logistics,” Domingues says. “Who picks it up, who drops it off, who pays the price, who guarantees the safety — there’s a small shelf life on food and you have to get it to people in a short amount of time.”

Flashfood started with two Farm Boy locations in London. Then, in May, the company partnered with Longo’s for a three-month trial run at one of their stores in downtown Toronto.

One reason supermarkets throw away as much as they do is that customers don’t understand best-before dates, von Massow explains: “Best-before dates have nothing to do with food safety.” Rather, he says, they indicate when a product is at its peak quality — ripeness, flavour, and so on. “Grocery stores pull it off the shelves two days before that because no one will buy it, because people won’t eat it beyond that date.”

Expiry dates are different: they actually pertain to food safety. But only a few products, like baby formula, are required to have expiry dates under Canadian Food Inspection Agency rules.

Yet while 10 per cent of food waste comes from retail, according to the Ontario government’s discussion paper, a huge portion — 45 per cent — is thrown out at home, whether it’s scraps, leftovers, or that half-empty jar of pasta sauce you forgot at the back of the fridge.

The discussion paper notes that 37 municipalities accounting for 70 per cent of Ontario’s population have implemented residential green bin programs, which divert organic waste away from landfills. The outstanding municipalities tend to be smaller, more remote, or concerned about the cost of implementation. Still, even in regions that have green bin programs, apartment and condo buildings often don’t offer the service.

At any rate, von Massow says, the government should focus more on preventing food from being wasted in the first place, through public education in schools and elsewhere. “People who are aware of waste, people who think about waste, throw less food out,” he says.

Other potential solutions target retailers. In France, for example, it’s illegal for large supermarkets to throw out edible food; a 2016 law mandates everything be donated to food banks.

The Ontario discussion paper includes this as an option, suggesting a possible food-waste ban by 2022. The government will accept feedback on its proposed policy options until July 31.

Von Massow says an outright ban would mean asking others to eat food we wouldn’t eat ourselves. It might also compel food banks to accept everything sent to them, regardless of their capacity to transport or store it, he adds.

Domingues contends that a ban would force governments and the private sector to find solutions, but says consumers need to change their ways, too. “We go to buy a watermelon, and there’s only one left. We’re not going to take it because we assume it’s the worst one. If there’s a bunch of watermelons, we’ll try and pick the one we like most, and we’ll just take that one. It’s forced grocers to overstock their shelves with perfect-looking products.

“It’s not just big bad retailers,” Domingues says. “It’s equally our fault. This is decades of bad grocery habits.”