Get this: almost half of all food produced worldwide is wasted. It gets tossed into the garbage bin during processing, transportation, after being served at restaurants, on grocery store shelves, and in family kitchens. The average Canadian household loses approximately $600 per year by discarding one in four produce items and as much as 30 percent of food, a total worth about $48 billion, is thrown away in the United States every single year.
Over the past few weeks, Arthur conducted some investigative work to see what the food waste situation is like across popular food-based businesses in the downtown Peterborough area, and also checked out how the compost program at Trent University is handled. The following is a summary of our findings.
Trent offers an extensive waste diversion program. You may have noticed those narrow green bins located in dining areas and scattered among heavy traffic spots around campus. Physical Resources staff were responsible for first setting up these composting sites and are credited with having developed the composting system on campus, which has since expanded to include all public areas, kitchens, cafeterias, and residences. All college buildings offer composting bins outside of dining rooms, readily available during meal times.
In a PowerPoint made available to the public, Trent stated that in 2011, nearly 86 tonnes were diverted from the landfill as a result of this new compost system. While no doubt a great success, ongoing challenges such as educating incoming batches of first year students, evaluating different compostable take-out products, and avoiding contamination continue to be highly problematic issues.
Jean, who works in the Lady Eaton cafeteria and has been with Trent for 35 years, estimated that the compost bin the kitchen porters use holds about two gallons. When asked about food waste on campus, Jean said, “I think it’s a generational thing. Students are better now about not wasting food. In my cafeteria, if a girl only wants four fries on her plate, then I can serve her that amount and nothing gets wasted, not like in a restaurant where they would give her a huge pile she could never finish eating that would ultimately end up in the garbage.”
When faced with large amounts of waste, students who are cleaning out their refrigerators or who wish to dispose of leftover food scraps may walk outside to the nearest “Resource Recovery Station,” which is usually located near a parking lot. They can empty their compostable waste into the green bin found there. Physical Resources grounds staff collect the compost and deliver it to the campus compost site. Staff will power wash the containers to help keep odours down, while the compost is processed, screened, and monitored for quality. From here, the compost is sent for testing before it can be used on Trent gardens and lawns.
Arthur then spoke about food waste with Robin at our beloved campus cafe, The Seasoned Spoon. When asked what happens to food that cannot be re-used at the end of the day, Robin answered, “All of our food is diverted from the general waste stream; anything that we don’t serve to customers either goes home with staff or volunteers. Some of it is composted, but that’s a very small amount. Most of it is being eaten. Whatever goes into our compost buckets goes home with one of our customers who feeds our waste to her pigs!”
Discussing how Peterborough is handling food waste in general, Robin further explained, “I think that Peterborough is in dire need of re-vamping how they deal with their food waste. The Green Bin project could definitely be extended to all of Peterborough. However, I know that the logistics of doing that are quite complicated. Basically, the argument is that there is [currently] no facility in which we could compost large amounts of food. I think that’s bullshit, and that we could figure it out if we tried. We are a strong agricultural center around here. The sale of compost is generating fairly significant revenue for Peterborough Green-Up and Ecology Park. The city of Peterborough could easily be generating money through that.”
“As far as I know, compost is not really an option that is provided by the city of Peterborough,” Trent University student Jessica Vuong added. “You can choose to have a mini compost in your yard though.”
We also made some inquiries downtown to find out how local businesses are handling food waste, and met up with Lisa Dixon, owner of Black Honey. In the summer and spring, Black Honey provides compost for two different gardeners, but in the winter leftovers are thrown out unless they are taken home by staff, or able to be frozen.
When approached about her thoughts on the strict corporate regulations and liability issues surrounding the consumption of leftover food, Lisa noted, “There is a lot of red tape, absolutely. If we have a large catering event and have lots of leftovers the first and most obvious problem is that it’s midnight or two in the morning, we’ve been catering for 12 hours straight and we’re staring at a bunch of food. Usually, the catering events are planned to the T so that everyone gets fed and there are no leftovers. If I’ve catered a large event like a wedding and have a huge amount leftover, there are two organizations that I call the next morning: the Women’s Shelter and the Youth Emergency Shelter. For both of these, we have to sign papers, and then they have to sign papers. At the Women’s Shelter, a man can’t deliver it. So between being tired and hoping we’ve made money, I often wait until the next morning or I give it to the client, because they’ve paid for it. Liability is really the issue when it comes to giving out leftovers, but larger corporations are more threatened by that than smaller businesses.”
Currently, in order to receive aid from the Ontario Association of Food Banks, you must prove need. This means being assessed on a series of criteria, such as monthly income and expenditure, as well as proof of address. In addition, you are required to bring along photo identification the first time visiting a local food bank. Since food banks are not-for-profit and rely on donations from both private and public sectors, the organizations must address different issue than those of the mainstream food service industry.
For instance, because food comes from varying sources, its history may be unknown, questions about quality, storage, health risk, sanitation, distinguishing salvageable from non-salvageable, ingredient labeling, and expiration dates must all be answered before those in need can be provided for.
As a result, strict standards of regulation must be met by businesses before they can donate leftover food (which would otherwise be thrown out or composted) to a food bank.
Joanne from The Ritz Deli North explained, “I think it’s tragic. I know that [waste] is a big problem in restaurants. I would like to see that food go to a homeless shelter or other places in need. I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else at the Deli, but if there were any way that the regulations could be lightened, I would be in support of that. If there is a demand for the food, people should not need to prove their need. If someone has the courage to go out of their way to get that food, I think that they should be rewarded.”
Heavy emphasis is placed on the preparation phase at The Ritz Deli North, and as a result food is only made each time an order is placed. Whatever people fail to eat off of their plate ends up in the garbage.
Local downtown dessert bistro, Dancing Blueberries Cupcakery also addressed the question of regulations surrounding the consumption of leftover food and said , “In a corporate environment, we need to have those kinds of rules.”
When baked goods are too old to sell at Dancing Blueberries, they sometimes go home with staff, but “other times, things get thrown out; it’s just what we have to do in order to meet standards of sanitation.”
Yannick spoke with Arthur on behalf of The Night Kitchen. “We compost what we can, and we sometimes have day-old pizzas on the bottom shelf,” he said. “Obviously we cannot compost the meat products, and the cheese also gets thrown out, but we compost all our vegetables and the pizza that we can. We sell day-olds, and if there are too many pizzas or we can’t sell them for one reason or another, we give them to staff or friends.”
In a city like Peterborough, where residents take pride in supporting local farmers and downtown businesses, our treatment of leftover organic waste is a subject that is deserving of much more attention. Food waste is a collective, societal problem. Finding appropriate and effective solutions must also be a group effort.