Five meals a week: Scientists audit garbage to assess household food waste

Average weekly waste represented enough calories to feed an adult five nights a week

In this Aug. 29, 2018, photo, at the Waste Management facility in North Brooklyn, tons of leftover food sits piled up before being processed into “bio-slurry,” in New York. A team of scientists spent weeks combing through the garbage of dozens of households to come up with what they say is the most accurate measure yet of how much food is wasted in Canadian kitchens. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Stephen Groves)

Scientists spent weeks up to their elbows in coffee grounds and banana peels to come up with what they say is the most accurate measure yet of how much food is wasted in Canadian kitchens.

“To be honest, it’s not something you’d want to do forever,” said Michael von Massow, a food economist at the University of Guelph.

Food waste has become an increasingly hot research topic in recent years.

Previous efforts have relied on industry data or household self-reporting to assess how much uneaten food goes in the garbage. But people underestimate how much they chuck and industry figures provide little detail on individual homes.

The only way, von Massow thought, was to get down and dirty.

He and his research colleagues worked with 94 households in Guelph, Ont.. The scientists took out the trash, went through recycling, organic waste and composting, separated mushy asparagus from dubious rice and weighed it all out over the course of several weeks.

“Rubber gloves,” von Massow laughs. “It’s not as bad as you might think.”

Items commonly dumped down the sink, such as expired milk or mouldy yogurt, weren’t measured.

The detailed, teabag-by-applecore approach allowed von Massow to precisely measure just how much was thrown out and whether it was once edible. That was crucial for determining the value of what got tossed.

“If you have a T-bone steak and you throw that bone out, putting a value on that bone of whatever you paid for the steak seems inaccurate,” von Massow said.

READ MORE: Save-On-Foods commits to reducing food waste

Waste from the families, all of whom had young children, varied widely. Some threw out up to eight kilograms of once-edible food a week, some barely one-sixteenth of that. The median figure was 2 1/2 kilograms.

That represents enough calories to have an adult over for dinner five nights a week without adding a dime to the grocery bill.

The value of that food was about $18. Producing and disposing of it generated about 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases.

Bread, tomatoes and apples were the top three items. Chicken was the most frequent meat.

Von Massow’s figures are lower than those arrived at in some previous research. A 2017 study estimated the amount of avoidable food waste in Canada at 2.7 kilograms per household.

Von Massow attributes that to his exclusion of non-edible waste.

Going through the garbage was revealing, he said. People know the plastic wrap around that yucky cucumber should go in the recycling, but they toss it in the trash anyway.

“People hide things that they feel guilty about. I saw people hide batteries in a Pringles tube. They know they’re doing something they shouldn’t and I think the same thing happens with avoidable food waste.”

Von Massow acknowledges that his sample size is small and, to some extent, self-selecting. But he maintains his results are, if not statistically bulletproof, at least representative.

The point of the research, he said, is to eventually understand what works best to persuade people to cut down on food waste. For some, it’s an ethical issue. For others, it’s economic and for still others it’s an environmental problem.

For von Massow, spending weeks picking through garbage has already had one effect.

“We have not audited my house yet, but it sure makes me more cognizant of when I’m putting something into the garbage.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: KAPS hopes to get hands on handhelds under Save-On program

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

FortisBC offers 90-day bill deferrals to customers impacted by COVID-19

Customers can apply for the relief program through the utility’s website

RCMP pursuit in Okanagan Falls leads to arrest of Penticton man

Seamus Kirby of Penticton is facing numerous charges including flight from police

North Okanagan bands together in support against COVID-19

New group launches website with tools to help endure crisis

Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen cuts two positions

Management roles cut as a result of ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

Summerland couple sharing positive messages

Carsten and Val Nielsen are displaying professionally made signs during COVID-19 pandemic

WATCH: Salmon Arm artist hosts virtual art show amid COVID-19

Roxi Hermsen’s show “Into the Cosmos” is a tribute to her father Bill Sim

HERGOTT: COVID-19 and ICBC

Paul Hergott is a personal injury lawyer based in West Kelowna

COVID-19: Armstrong gym fined $345 after failure to close

The fitness centre was issued a ticket a day after province ordered all gyms to close

Bus rider who travelled to Golden tests positive for COVID-19

The passenger travelled from Calgary to Golden on March 15

Armed robbery of legal grow-op in Sicamous ends in arrest near Enderby

Residents alarmed over increased police presence Tuesday morning

Wildfire burns out-of-control on Adams Lake band land in the Shuswap

BC Wildfire Service reports Shuswap two-hectare fire is not threatening structures

COVID-19: Vernon homeless shelters combine in curling club

Gateway and Our Place shelter sites housed under one roof amid pandemic

COVID-19: Don’t get away for Easter weekend, Dr. Bonnie Henry warns

John Horgan, Adrian Dix call 130 faith leaders as holidays approach

COVID-19: Trudeau says 30K ventilators on the way; 3.6M Canadians claim benefits

Canada has seen more than 17,000 cases and at least 345 deaths due to COVID-19

Most Read