The Environmental Costs of Throwing our Food Away

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When you throw food away, you may give passing thought to those who suffer from hunger, whether in developing nations or in your own community. You may also think about the money you squandered on that uneaten yogurt or the mushy head of lettuce that sat wilting in your crisper. But do you think about the environmental costs of letting that food go to waste? Sure, you may give yourself a pat on the back for using the green bin, diverting your organic residuals from landfill — but what about the resources that went into getting that food to your plate in the first place? What about the environmental consequences of throwing it away, green bin or not?

If you are not asking yourself these questions, you should. We all should — because wasting food is not only a social and an economic problem; it also presents a significant cost to the environment — one we could, with some effort, collectively overcome.

Defining the Problem: What is “Food Waste”?

The waste problem we are discussing here is not the “shells, peels and coffee grounds” portion of food, but rather the avoidable waste: food that is thrown out while it is still edible (a bruised apple or the uneaten portion of our lunch) or food that is allowed to spoil before being consumed (bread that goes mouldy sitting on the counter or that mushy lettuce).

And it is a big problem: in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that one-third of the edible parts of food produced globally — roughly 1.3 billion tons — is lost or wasted every year. In Canada, it’s even worse; a recent study estimated that 40 per cent of food produced in Canada each year — valued at a staggering $27 billion — is not consumed. Statistics Canada estimated that, in 2007, Canadians wasted the equivalent of 183 kilograms of food per person.

Food waste occurs all the way down the food chain, from “field to fork” — from losses during production, processing, packaging and transportation to wastage at the retail, food service and household levels. But it is we, as consumers, who waste the greatest portion of food: over 50 per cent of the food wasted in Canada is estimated to occur in our homes (see Figure 7.1.1).

Sources of food waste in Canada by percentage.jpg

Why Does Food Get Wasted?

A recent study of food waste in Canada identified causes of food waste along the food chain, including, for example: overproduction; product defects; equipment or delivery errors; unnecessary inventory (including at the household level); inappropriate procedures or systems for processing food; excessive transportation; and long periods of inactivity leading to spoilage. At the household level, food may be wasted due to a number of behaviours, including:

  • over-purchasing, due to poor planning or bulk-buying;
  • cooking too much/not eating leftovers;
  • uncertainty about the safety of perishable food and leftovers; and
  • confusion about date labelling (see Box “Confusing Date Labelling Leads to Wasted Food,” next page).

The relatively low cost of food in Canada — affording us the luxury of being wasteful with our food — may also contribute to the problem.

Another source of wasted food is consumers’ increasing demand for “perfect” produce; fruits and vegetables that are undersized, misshapen or blemished, though perfectly edible, are often rejected by consumers and, consequently, by retailers. These aesthetic standards lead to waste all the way up the food chain.

Why Should We Care?

It may seem like a little thing to throw out the uneaten half of your sandwich or the limp carrots in your fridge. Collectively, though, this behaviour has significant environmental costs. Resources that went into the production, packaging, transportation and storage of that food — and that are now squandered — could have been saved or put to another use. There are additional environmental consequences associated with disposal of that wasted food.

  • Water: Humans use more water for agriculture than for any other use. One estimate pegs the global water loss associated with food waste, assuming 25 per cent of the world’s food supplies are wasted, at an astounding 675 trillion litres per year — more than the entire volume of Lake Erie. There is no way around it: when food is wasted, water is wasted too.
  • Energy: Energy is required for the production, processing, transportation (sometimes thousands of kilometres), preparation and storage of food. In the U.S., approximately ten per cent of the energy budget goes to food. Simply reducing food waste could, over the next decades, be an effective approach to significantly reducing our energy consumption.
  • Greenhouse gases (GHGs): An estimated 20 per cent of global GHG emissions arise from the production and preparation of food. To add insult to injury, when that food goes uneaten, methane — a GHG 25-times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) — is generated if the food goes to landfill. It has been estimated that if avoidable food waste was eliminated, the reduction of GHG emissions would be equivalent to taking one in five cars off the road. The UK government has specifically recognized that reducing food waste could help achieve the country’s GHG reduction targets under its Climate Change Act 2008.
  • Packaging: Energy and other resources that go into food packaging are needlessly wasted when food is thrown away. Moreover, the packaging itself of uneaten food either ends up in a landfill or in the recycling stream, unnecessarily using additional resources.
  • Land use change and soil depletion: When we waste food, we artificially increase the demand for food production and, consequently, the expansion of agricultural lands and deforestation around the globe. Deforestation leads to increased CO2 released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Greater pressure on existing farmlands also leads to increased soil erosion and nutrient depletion, heightening the need to use fertilizers to maintain yields.
  • Habitat loss and biodiversity: Converting forests, grasslands and other richly biodiverse ecosystems to farmland eliminates habitat for a wide array of species — for example, South American rainforests cleared for cattle grazing.
Confusing Date Labelling leads to Wasted Food
Have you ever been stumped by the date labels on your food? “Best before,” “packaged on,” “use by,” “sell by,” “display until,” “expiry” — what do they mean? Consumer confusion over date labelling results in a considerable amount of food going to waste, as consumers discard good food under the misperception that it is no longer safe to eat.

For example, “best before” labels are not about product safety; they are about the freshness and potential shelf-life of the product. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, “you can buy and eat [unopened] foods after the ‘best before’ date has passed. However, when this date has passed, the food may lose some of its freshness and flavour, or its texture may have changed. Some of its nutritional value … may also be lost.” Bottom line: you do not have to throw out that unopened container of milk at the stroke of midnight on the “best before” date!

What Should We be Doing?

The best way to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste is to keep food from being wasted in the first place. While diverting organic residue from landfill to composting is a laudable and legitimate goal, it should be a last resort. Consider this: each tonne of food and drink waste prevented is estimated by the UK government to save approximately four tonnes of CO2 equivalent. By contrast, the same amount of food and drink waste diverted from landfill to compost or anaerobic digestion is estimated to reduce emissions by only 0.4 to 0.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. The winner is clear.

Some examples of policy and other initiatives to keep food from being wasted include the following.

Public communication and outreach

Organizations such as the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a government-funded not-for-profit company, are boosting public awareness about food waste. WRAP’s “Love Food Hate Waste” website provides advice on shopping for, storing and preparing food to help consumers reduce their food waste and save money. The approach seems to be working; in March 2012, the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported a reduction in household food waste between 2006/2007 and 2010 of 1.1 million tonnes (approximately 13 per cent) per year.

Closer to home, the Recycling Council of Ontario’s Waste-Free Lunch Challenge raises awareness by helping schools reduce the amount of waste generated by students’ lunches (estimated at 30 kg of waste per student per school year). In addition to advocating for packaging-free lunches, the program promotes packing lunches in serving sizes that will be completely eaten, or saving leftover food and drink in re-usable, re-sealable containers to be consumed (or composted) later.

Improving date labelling

Responsibility for date labelling of foods imported into, manufactured in and/or sold in Canada lies with the federal government. However, producers and retailers could be encouraged to educate consumers about the meaning of date labels.

In September 2011, the UK government released new guidance for date labelling food. The document provides a set of non-binding best practices intended to reduce consumer confusion about date labels that often leads to wasted food. Among the best practices is advice to retailers to avoid using “display until” and “sell by” labels (intended for stock control) that may lead consumers to mistakenly discard food as unsafe while it is still perfectly edible.

Designating food as waste

Under Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act, 2002, if a material is “designated” as waste, the Minister of the Environment can direct Waste Diversion Ontario (a non-Crown corporation established under the Act) to develop a waste diversion program for that waste in co-operation with an industry funding organization. In the context of food waste, an industry funding organization could require stewards (food brand owners and importers) to pay fees to manage their products as designated waste. Appropriately set fees could create an incentive for the food industry to find ways to reduce or discourage unnecessary disposal of their products.

Food donation and recovery

A number of organizations collect perishable excess food from manufacturers, distributors, retailers, restaurants, hotels and other venues and redistribute that food to people in need through food banks, shelters and other social service agencies, keeping that food from ending up as compost or, worse, landfill. One such organization in Ontario, Second Harvest, reports that it has diverted more than 70 million pounds of food since 1985 (preventing over 35 million pounds of GHG equivalents from entering the atmosphere).

Ontario’s Donation of Food Act, 1994 protects from liability those who, in good faith, donate or distribute donated food, if consumption of that food accidentally results in injury or death. This assurance is intended to encourage those with excess edible food to donate it for redistribution to those in need without fear of legal repercussions.


When farm crops are harvested, significant amounts of produce are often left behind for various reasons (e.g., harvesting technique, quality or aesthetic standards, etc.). Other crops are left unharvested altogether due to market conditions. Approximately 25 million pounds of food are estimated to remain in farm fields post-harvest in Ontario each year. “Gleaning” is the act of collecting and using those leftover crops that would otherwise be ploughed under, composted or go to waste. In many places, including Ontario, gleaning projects have volunteers collecting fresh produce left behind on farm land and redistributing that food to those in need.

In 2010, a private member’s bill introduced in the Ontario Legislature proposed a significant tax credit for farmers who donate their surplus agricultural products to food banks. The bill received Second Reading and was ordered referred to Standing Committee on General Government, but was never passed. An identical bill was introduced in the current Parliament in June 2012, receiving First Reading just before the House rose for the summer.

Other Strategies

Institutions, including some Ontario universities, are making efforts to reduce food waste by introducing “trayless eating.” Removing trays in buffet-style or all-you-can-eat cafeteria venues has been reported to reduce the amount of wasted food by 25-30 per cent. It also saves energy, water and detergent required to clean the trays. Another strategy introduced by a UK grocery retailer is the concept of “buy one get one free — later” (or BOGOF-L). In contrast to traditional “buy-one-get-one-free” or “2-for-1” deals, BOGOF-L discourages consumers from over-purchasing food to get a good deal by allowing them to pick up the free item within a specified period of time after the original purchase. Using this approach, the consumer still gets the deal, but is less likely to allow the “free” item to go uneaten.

What is Ontario Doing?

Any attention to food waste by the provincial government has generally been focused on diverting organic residuals (i.e., yard trimmings and food waste) from landfill — and even then, there is still no province-wide organics diversion program. There seem to be few, if any, government initiatives dedicated to preventing food from being wasted in the first place.

The Ministry of the Environment (MOE) has itself noted that the Waste Diversion Act, 2002 fails to prioritize waste reduction and reuse over recycling. With organic residuals making up approximately one-third of the waste generated in Ontario, this failure means significant food waste — much of it avoidable — must be handled at the end of the line.

Nevertheless, source reduction — including reducing food waste — is at least on MOE’s radar. In a 2009 discussion paper, From Waste to Worth: The Role of Waste Diversion in the Green Economy, MOE identified the option of developing a long-term (five-year) schedule for waste diversion of certain products, including “branded organics” (i.e., organics that are traceable back to their producers), which could potentially include food waste from packaged products. Under the schedule, designated materials would be banned from landfills, provided there is a viable alternative to disposal; if “branded organics” were designated as waste, this could effectively divert a portion of food waste from landfill. Finally, while not specifically aimed at food waste, MOE identified the potential to impose landfill disposal levies to “[narrow] the price gap between diversion and disposal.” While the most likely result is that more food waste would be diverted to compost (a very worthy goal), such measures could also encourage changes along the food chain to reduce the volume of food waste generated in the first place. However, MOE has not proposed moving forward on any of the options described above.

The ECO discussed Ontario’s record on waste reduction, including organic residuals, in What a Waste: Failing to Engage Waste Reduction Solutions in our 2010/2011 Annual Report.

ECO Comment

The environmental consequences of letting good food go to waste — up and down the food chain — are staggering. The social and economic benefits of avoiding food waste are equally significant. In short, it is a no-brainer that food waste reduction should figure prominently on Ontario’s policy agenda.

The province cannot reach into our homes and force us to eat our crusts. But it can and should be providing us with the knowledge, tools and incentives to stop wasting food. The province could take a number of actions:

  • Mount a public education and awareness campaign to target food waste at the household level and gradually shift behavioural norms.
  • Work with the federal government and food producers and retailers to improve product date labelling and increase consumer literacy surrounding date labels.
  • Require a provincial food waste diversion program to encourage more responsible management of food and food waste.
  • Create financial incentives to stop wasting food.
  • Partner with or provide support for organizations engaged in food recovery and redistribution.
  • Work with farmers, other food producers, retailers and the food service industry to find other creative solutions.

At a minimum, the Ontario government (in particular, MOE and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) should be tracking this issue, gathering reliable data about how much avoidable food waste is occurring in Ontario. This information could and should help inform and prioritize future policy.

Realistically, there will likely always be some food that gets wasted. But if Ontario prioritized food waste prevention and reduced the volume of avoidable food waste generated in the province, it could:

  • Shrink our consumption of resources (inside and outside Ontario), including water and energy.
  • Reduce GHG emissions from food production, transportation and storage.
  • Lessen the demand for agricultural land, resulting in less habitat destruction and biodiversity loss.
  • Reduce the volume and environmental costs of landfilling food and food packaging.

It is nothing short of a winning proposition.

This is an article from the 2011/12 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2012. "A Terrible Waste: The Environmental Costs of Throwing our Food Away." Losing Our Touch, ECO Annual Report, 2011-12. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 159-167.