One-third of our garbage is food

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, February 2011

That’s costing us too much, in too many ways.

When my children watched Sesame Street years ago, one of the skits they especially enjoyed involved a group of items and a discussion on how these were interconnected. What do these things have in common, the viewers were asked by way of a singing ditty that still hums around in my head once in a while. Sometimes the humming starts when I see issues with a significant cause-and-effect relationship nonetheless presented as polarized stories in the media.

Two such stories caught my eye recently. The first is local and affects us all: The CRD is in a quandary. The Hartland landfill will be full in 2035, despite an expansive recycling program that already has 90 percent of us diverting up to 29,000 tonnes of recyclables annually. Furthermore, there are no plans to replace it, according to Victoria councillor Chris Coleman, interviewed in a recent newspaper story on the Hartland dilemma.

I was surprised to learn that organic waste is, at 30.4 percent, the biggest single “filler” at the landfill. That means food, everything from vegetable scraps and takeout detritus to—in recent weeks—the rest of the holiday brie, dips and sauces that sat out too long and the ubiquitous leftover turkey, is plugging up the landfill. A third of your garbage container and mine is crammed with stuff we bought to eat, and didn’t.

The cousin to this story—and it should be front page news—affects everyone in North America. Jonathon Bloom, author of American Wasteland, a new book on food waste, estimates that 40 percent of the food produced in North America is wasted somewhere between production and consumption. It would be easy to dismiss him for hyperbole, except for the CRD’s finding here at home and Statistics Canada’s revelation that 38 percent of the solid food available for retail sale in 2007 was wasted, the equivalent six million tonnes nationwide or 183 kilograms per Canadian.

Let’s say it out loud: We’re lugging a lot of food to the curb. What’s more, we’re doing it without giving much thought to how this profligacy impacts our wallet or the Earth.

Jonathon Bloom estimates that food waste costs the average North American family of four about $2000 per year, a figure in line with Statistics Canada’s finding that the same family wastes 732 kilograms every year. These are after-tax dollars that, when reformulated into a pre-tax price tag, represent a big bite out of family income. Add on the hidden costs of bringing that food home and refrigerating it until it gets discarded, as well as the not-so-hidden cost of garbage disposal, and it becomes clear that wasted food is not an economically neutral item in the family budget.

Sometimes I wonder if the food industry is gleefully rubbing its hands together. The more we buy, the more they profit, and they can drive that gain even higher by encouraging wastefulness. They know we’re a bit soft in the knees for over-sized portions. They know how to tempt with products that will end up in the back of the fridge. They know that best-before dates—the cause of so much food going to waste—are, in many cases, based more on fear of legal action than on the actual shelf-life of a product.

The industry itself is hugely wasteful too. Consumers want only the best, so right off the bat, 20 percent of any crop is left behind in the field. Retailers often overstock to avoid running out and, again because of fear of legal action, tend to dump their surplus rather than channel it to food banks and soup kitchens.

Which brings us back to our little problem here on the Island. It seems as if the two stories are connected after all. While the CRD is looking at ways to keep food out of the landfill—already controversial because of the inevitable added taxes—maybe we could ponder how wasting less might be part of the solution. Maybe it could even be practical. More on that next month.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a writer, mother and Master Gardener. One of her favourite kitchen “tools” is an old stainless steel compost bucket.