In mitigating climate change, there’s often a tension—one we’ve highlighted before at 5REDO—between individual and collective action. What can individuals do to lessen their environmental impact, and when should efforts be directed toward the larger forces at play? This question is challenging, as individual action can sometimes feel futile. But as the case of food waste shows, it can have an outsized impact—for better and worse.

With groceries at their highest prices in decades and food bank use across Canada at an all time high, it’s unfortunate that food waste continues to be a major problem. The province of Ontario alone generates nearly one million tonnes of food waste every year from the production to household level, according to the National Zero Waste Council. What’s perhaps even more surprising is that nearly half of that waste is created by individual consumers. Even in areas that have an organic waste collection program, food scraps still comprise nearly 31% of residential waste that ends up in the province’s landfills.

Food waste encompasses both unused or uneaten scraps and ingredients thrown away in homes, restaurants, grocery stores, and food production sites, and also scraps that are put into green bins, but, for a variety of reasons, not ultimately composted.

While food waste is of course a social issue, it’s also an environmental one, as organic waste that ends up in landfill emits methane as it breaks down—a greenhouse gas up to 25 times more harmful than CO2. Excess food waste both leaves people needlessly hungry, and hurts our environment. (There are a number of initiatives in place, both in everyday households and industry, to mitigate food waste, which we’ll cover in a subsequent article).

It’s useful to understand why food waste happens, and the complex reasons it remains so prevalent. First, poor waste diversion is an important factor. The 2021 Census tells us that 76% of Canadian households use at-home green bins, a more than a 50% increase since 1994. This is significant, since a major part of tackling household food waste is availability of composting. However, in Ontario, for example, it’s still not enough to hit the target of a 70% reduction in food waste.

This means green bin programs need to be more rigorous about actually composting food scraps, and ensuring diversion from landfill is high. Part of that responsibility is also at the household level, where consumers need to be sure they’re not contaminating their green bins with un-compostable items. While expanding composting to areas that don’t currently have it is technically positive, better waste management must be ensured overall, so we don’t end up just dumping more food in landfills.

At the food production level—anywhere from farms and factories to restaurants—food waste occurs for many reasons, but largely because there are usually legal or public health parameters that do not allow, or make it difficult to get surplus food to where it’s needed. The dairy industry, for example, is likely to have surplus food during production, but due to regulations around legal expiry dates on products, it’s hard to reuse or give away that food. Grocery stores face a similar conundrum, bound to sell-by dates and the risk of losing customers with misshapen or imperfect produce on shelves.

Unlike healthcare or transportation, some waste does not have to be inevitable when we’re talking about food. By not over-buying and using a green bin properly at home, consumers can eliminate a major chunk of the food waste problem. In our next piece, we’ll discuss current efforts to reduce food waste and their effectiveness.