Female store manager inspecting meat packages in refrigerated compartment at supermarket.

Ending Food Waste for Good

In our first piece on food waste, we established that it’s a major global problem, one soured by the fact that millions face hunger and a rising cost of groceries. Luckily, there are many initiatives, from public health campaigns, startups, and social media groups seeing great success in the mission to end food waste.

For grocers and food producers, reducing waste can be challenging not only because of sell-by and expiry dates, but the maneuvering required to get unsold food out to where it’s needed. In recent years, a variety of businesses have stepped in to fill this need. Denmark-based Too Good To Go and Toronto-based company Flashfood connect users (via their apps) with surplus food at local grocers and restaurants, and offer options like “surprise bags” and discounted food close to its sell-by date. In the UK, Oddbox works with farms to identify produce at risk of going to waste—largely due to its odd shape—and puts together subscription or pickup boxes for nearby customers.

Grocers are also making changes, with Toronto-area chain Longo’s already hitting a target of more than 75% food waste reduction, by utilizing services like Too Good to Go, upcycling unsold ingredients, and using various metrics to gauge demand, to ensure they only supply what will be bought and used. Costco Canada works with more than 400 local organizations to donate both non-perishable and perishable goods to places in need, and at some facilities, food waste is used to create compost and fertilizer that is then sent to local farms.

While activities are going on across many industries, Canada’s National Zero Waste Council found that cohesion is needed to tackle food waste in a more significant way. After reviewing input from hundreds of stakeholders, the Council created a Food Waste Pyramid, ranking steps toward reducing food waste in the country; prevention came out on top.

The Council states that a national target is needed so that food producers, stores, and municipalities can have a framework to work from, since currently, waste reduction efforts vary widely. Another major step identified is reducing confusion over food labels, so consumers can better discern between “sell by”, “best before” and so on. This would not only reduce waste at the household level, but make it easier for suppliers to move unsold perishable products to where they’re needed.

Of course, amidst larger structural change, individuals play an important role, as we know food waste at the household level is significant. A poll from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity found individual consumers feel they’re “most responsible” (at 59%), for reducing food waste, closely followed by restaurants and grocery stores. With this in mind, a number of efforts target consumer-to-consumer waste reduction, such as Facebook groups like Buy Nothing, which facilitate swaps of used or surplus items, including food.

Individuals can also reduce food waste by being more judicious when grocery shopping and not over-buying. Cooking at home rather than ordering in, freezing or better preserving produce in your fridge, and also composting when necessary—and properly—is important. If you have an at-home garden, you can also use food scraps to create compost or enrich soil. Making use of local food banks and community fridges to donate unused food is also a great option.

Amidst efforts to bring the circular economy into our everyday lives, food offers many options; with so many people hungry, there’s more reason than ever to make sure nothing goes to waste.

WIREs cover

Our Joint Work with University of Quebec Published in WIREs Energy and Environment

Many semi-durable and durable consumer goods are composed of plastic. Yet, plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues as it harms oceans and marine biodiversity. This state of affairs is worsened because plastic recycling rates remain low. Therefore, one commonly proposed solution is to improve plastic waste management to create a circular plastics economy. However, focusing on recycling management alone overshadows the consumption component and how consumers might contribute to recycling efforts. Although not alone in the overall recycling process, consumers are critical stakeholders in this because through their disposal behavior, they determine the responsible discarding of plastic through recycling. The significance of consumer engagement in driving circularity has been strongly emphasized in extant research and practice. Shifting from a linear plastic economy toward a circular one requires the active contribution of all stakeholders, especially the consumer. Hence, given the centrality of consumers' role, this paper provides an overview of the themes related to consumer engagement with plastic recycling. More specifically, the paper reveals three layers of influence on consumer plastic recycling behavior: (1) macroenvironmental factors, (2) situational factors, and (3) individual factors. This review provides scholars, practitioners, and decision-makers with better insights into the themes to consider in order to spur consumer engagement in plastic recycling.

Read the Full Article

Reste einer Kantine

Food Waste and the Negative Feedback Loop

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.

Medical waste

Sustainable Healthcare: Reducing Waste in the Medical Sector

Every industry faces unique issues when it comes to reducing waste. Restaurants are grappling with the switch to sustainable takeout packaging, while the textiles world is responding to the challenge of scaling down from fast fashion. Healthcare is no exception, and it’s a sector that comes with distinct challenges.

Healthcare settings generate a significant amount of waste. A 2019 report on 110 Canadian hospitals found they generated nearly 87,000 tonnes of waste annually, about the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – and this doesn’t include waste from long-term care homes, clinics, or private practices.

A main driver of this waste are single-use items, which are common and necessary in healthcare. Things like gloves, cotton swabs, syringes, and bandages are single-use, and for good reason – to protect and promote patient health. Indeed, the Canadian government’s recent single-use plastics ban included exemptions for healthcare.

Another factor specific to healthcare is the delineation of the waste stream, between “regular” and biohazardous waste. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 85% of waste produced in healthcare settings is non-hazardous and can be disposed of the same as household garbage. The rest must be treated as hazardous, including things like used syringes, human waste, vaccine products or medications. Though there’s a clear delineation of the waste streams, contamination continues to be a problem.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal published a review of waste issues in the country’s healthcare system, and improper disposal was named as a major one. According to Laurette Geldenhuys of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), much of the garbage produced in healthcare is improperly discarded with hazardous waste. It is then either unnecessarily incinerated or sanitized, adding both cost and greenhouse gas emissions.

Geldenhuys noted that many physicians are confused about how to properly dispose of waste, and in an intense, high-stress job, this can fall to the wayside. She tackled the problem in her own lab by conducting an audit, bringing in additional bins and bags for recycling and garbage, and educating staff. In just one month, the lab’s special waste output was reduced by 75%.

While this proves that better waste management is possible, there’s also a need for more sustainable products in healthcare, especially single-use items.

5REDO is currently working on a prototype for compostable gloves, as these are some of the most common items to end up in landfill and are otherwise not reusable. The same goes for things like cotton swabs, packaging, or wound dressing. There are reusable or compostable versions of these on the market, and phasing them into healthcare – while ensuring patient health – could be a crucial step.

Healthcare is essential, and so is the innovation to make it more sustainable. While many sectors are focused on shifting reliance from unsustainable products – like sourcing energy from wind or solar rather than fossil fuels – healthcare isn’t going anywhere. Instead, it must adapt, as it has for centuries, to best practices for both patients and the planet.

Garbage incineration plant. Waste incinerator plant with smoking smokestack. The problem of environmental pollution by factories aerial view

To Burn or Not to Burn: The Debate on Incineration

Many topics in the environmental and sustainability space can be polarizing, and incineration is one of the clearest examples. 

On the industry side, experts say it’s an underused technology with great potential, but environmental advocates claim it’s nothing but harmful to air quality, the landscape, and nearby communities. 

Compared to other topics in the sustainability realm, incineration rarely makes headlines in Canada, and that’s likely because it’s not widely used here. Less than 10% of our municipal waste ends up incinerated – far below other G7 nations, some of which incinerate more than half of their waste. Sweden even imports garbage from other nations to incinerate, and uses the energy to heat homes and power electricity needs.

Globally, incineration has been debated recently after a group of UK-based advocates called for an end and eventual ban on incineration in their country. With nearly half of all waste incinerated there, they claim it’s harming air quality far beyond what industry states, and that low income and ethnically diverse neighbourhoods are disproportionately feeling the impacts. 

Here in Canada, the Toronto Environmental Alliance has taken a strong position against incineration, arguing that the purported benefits about its use for energy are flawed, in that it doesn’t address the problem of reducing overall waste. The Alliance says that waste sent for incineration shouldn’t be generated in the first place, and that it should be composted, recycled, or reused anyway.

It’s true that compared to its G7 counterparts, Canada has relatively poor performance for waste diversion, recycling, and compost; we rely heavily on landfill, which is harmful to the environment in its own ways.

But is there a chance that incineration – even temporarily – can help us along the way to better diversion rates? A major factor to consider is that energy from incineration can be used elsewhere, and it is claimed that with modern technologies, we can better track and reduce its pollution or harmful effects. 

Still, environmental advocates make the important point that, like most methods, incineration has drawbacks that can’t be ignored. While generating energy from waste involves burning materials that have a high energy content, such as dried organics and plastics, it is worth noting that these are actually materials that can and should be composted or recycled instead.

Amidst the debate, what’s clear is that incineration isn’t a perfect technology; even those who advocate for it point out that the emissions can still cause harm, though outcomes can be better than landfill or other forms of disposal. Regardless, there’s a good chance incineration may continue to expand, given the European Union’s recent directives for reducing and eventually eliminating landfill use. 

Going forward, it’s a matter of clearing the air, literally and figuratively – so those on all sides can get a clearer picture of the right role for incineration. 


A Closer Look at Composting in Canada

Composting programs have been a fixture across the country for many years, both in rural and urban settings. Millions of Canadians are now familiar with how to separate organic waste at home, and expect local authorities to collect and properly compost that waste.

With that said, experts in the environmental space have pointed out gaps in the system, such as the fact that some facilities are not equipped to compost all organic material, and diversion rates are not as high as they could be. Still, recent data show that composting organics is becoming more streamlined, efficient, and successful in Canada.

To get a better sense of this, it’s useful to look at how trends have evolved over time. In 2012, composting experts BioCycle did an analysis of composting across the country. Against recent Statistics Canada data, it offers an illuminating comparison.

  • In 2012, Nova Scotia was considered a leader, with aggressive targets for limiting waste and increasing composting investment. As of 2019, Nova Scotia and PEI were found to be the most dedicated kitchen waste composters, at 90 and 95% of households, respectively.
  • Quebec had a goal of 60% diversion of all organic waste, but a rate of only 22% in 2012. Based on 2018 figures, that number is now at 31%, and the Quebec government has said they have a goal of 70% by 2030.
  • At the time in Ontario, about 40% of municipalities had curbside organics collection, and diverted more waste than any other province. However, most programs did not extend to multi-unit buildings, and unfortunately this is still the case (Some regions, like Waterloo, have just introduced plans to include composting in these buildings).
  • In 2012, Alberta generated more waste per capita than any other province, and Calgary had only just launched a composting program at the time – but today, households there are more than twice as likely to compost kitchen waste than in Edmonton. As explained by Statistics Canada, this is likely because Edmonton still has a single-stream waste program, where waste is sorted at facilities. Officials there are now looking to change this.
  • BioCycle found that composting rates in Vancouver were pretty low, and today, they remain so; approximately 1 in 12 households in Vancouver had access to a municipal composting program and did not use it. However, recent stats from the City of Vancouver say their overall waste diversion rate (which includes recycling and compost) is around 63%.

So, what can we glean from this evolution? As BioCycle explains, investment is needed on part of local authorities as well as private companies, who provide facilities and expertise to compost organic waste. Access is also crucial, as we see in the case of Calgary and households in the Maritimes. Over the past decade, much improvement has been made for composting in Canada, but there’s still a long way to go. We’ll examine this further in a discussion about bioplastics and more, next month.

Closeup portrait woman hand throwing empty plastic water bottle

Why Behavioural Science is Key to the Circular Economy

The field of behavioural science can seem elusive, but most of us encounter it often, whether we know it or not. From advertising slogans to labels on garbage bins, its impacts are everywhere. This area of social science deals – as you might expect – with human behaviour: how it works, why, and what interventions can influence it.  

It’s also of particular interest in the environmental space, especially since the revelation that much of climate change is caused by human behaviour. Experts in the climate change and circular economy realm often use behavioural science to determine what interventions will push us toward more sustainable behaviour. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, since data has shown behaviour can indeed be influenced with a targeted approach; recycling and waste management offers a good example. 

Any change or improvement in a waste collection system, like adding a new bin or reducing contamination, should come with education that considers current consumer behaviour. An article from Circular details how cities in the UK have done so successfully, with actions as simple as adding bottle-shaped receptacles to public collection bins, or showing a physical display of daily waste collected in busy areas. These interventions were enacted to reduce recycling contamination, a problem that had stymied local infrastructure for some time. Since recycling programs had already been in place for decades, experts found that messaging had to shift from just telling people to recycle, to educating them – with a positive, action-oriented tone – about the impacts of contamination.  

This was achieved through both information campaigns, and what’s called “nudging”. An article from the journal on Resources, Conservation and Recycling, defines nudging as something that “helps people without compulsion, but ‘paternalizes’ them with a gentle push towards the ‘right choice’”. The authors noted it’s come to be seen as “a low-cost solution for promoting pro-environmental behaviour” (the bottle-shaped receptacles are one example). 

Whether it’s in government policy or an ad campaign, behavioural science is powerful. Take smoking, for example; not so long ago, tobacco companies and medical professionals alike glossed over the risks because of strong public uptake – smoking was socially condoned. When evidence of its harms became widely known, a sea change took place. Now, a mix of public-private initiatives, like strict bans on smoking areas and images of damaged lungs on cigarette packaging tell a completely different story. It’s one that directly impacted human behaviour; nearly half of all American adults smoked in 1965, and in 2018, only about 13% did. 

Though the context is different, if this could happen for smoking, why not for environmental behaviours? Some may argue there have already been years of large-scale efforts to get people to participate in more sustainable actions, to little effect. But the difference now, as one expert in the Circular piece stated, is the private sector is on board in a more significant way: “Brands talk to citizens in a very different way from local authorities. That different voice is a powerful addition.” 

So, how does behavioural science relate back to the circular economy? Well, a truly circular economy needs active participation from everyday consumers, private companies, and public authorities; a diverse set of actors that could benefit from thoughtful, cohesive information and initiatives. As we know from recycling examples, a circular waste management system only works if users fully participate, and they can only do so with knowledge of (and sometimes guidance toward) best practices. By using a behavioural science lens, everyone – from big decision makers to an average household – can be empowered to take the right steps.  

Circular economy concept.

Sustainable Partnerships: How Businesses Can Collaborate for the Planet

Partnerships of all kinds are common in the business world, and the average consumer encounters them more than they may realize.  

Businesses often collaborate as a way to accelerate growth and profit, via creating new products or marketing to a wider audience. Think Marvel character toys included in kid’s meals at McDonald’s, or the luxury brand Balenciaga designing for fast-fashion chain H&M; these partnerships boost brand visibility and profits for both parties. In a collaboration, businesses can share resources, brand power, and marketing tools to make it mutually beneficial. Now, with more businesses looking toward Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability goals, there’s room for partnerships that could benefit the planet. 

Integrating sustainable, circular practices takes time, and can require major shifts away from entrenched practices; think switching to new packaging for an entire product line, or revamping a formula with sustainable ingredients. This is where environmental (or ESG: environmental, social, and governance) partnerships can be helpful, as businesses can share expertise and resources to meet sustainability goals.  

An ESG partnership can take many forms, from something concrete like sharing supply chain resources, or more abstract, through knowledge-sharing. An example of this is seen in the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, established in 2014 between industry partners across the country. After widespread recognition of the steep environmental cost of beef cultivation, invested parties created a set of shared agreements to reduce the environmental impact of their practices.  

The consulting firm Coro Strandberg names the many benefits to sustainability partnerships, including sharing risks, influencing larger policy, attracting funds, demonstrating leadership, and accelerating innovation. Indeed, many large corporations are hesitant or slow to change to sustainable practices because of the cost and risk involved, and the lack of large-scale innovation – finding a cost-effective and mass-produced source of sustainable packaging, for example, can be difficult and resource-intensive.  

Another benefit of such partnerships is the opportunity to reduce greenwashing, which is when corporations overstate, exaggerate, or make false claims about their environmental actions. When a partnership involves multiple stakeholders, there are more audiences to be accountable to, and more layers of expertise at play. Of course, greenwashing can still be present, but when standards are agreed on, it’s less likely that the change will just be a flash in the pan. With the sharing of risks and assets, there’s more chance for it to last.  

The benefit of having widespread industry standards also can’t be overlooked. Many corporations are multinational and have stakes, relationships and activities in multiple countries, so having a clear set of sustainability guidelines can have a global impact.  

Right now, sustainable/ESG partnerships are still in their infancy, but they are growing in popularity. The MaRS Discovery District, a group in Canada focused on innovation and sustainability, details the many global partnerships currently at work, like the Marine Stewardship Council Certification for sustainable seafood, or the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. These partnerships, and many others, leave the door open for concrete action that will make sustainability an achievable goal.  

At 5REDO, helping innovators meet their sustainability goals is one of our core activities. We are always open to partnering with companies and organizations to craft and execute sustainability initiatives. Together, we can work to discover solutions, build innovations, and move toward a more sustainable future.   


Responsible Consumers: The Role of At-Home Waste Sorting

The concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is often discussed in the circular economy space, the idea being to have producers shoulder more burden of managing, recycling, and disposing of waste. It also calls attention to the need for producers to consider how their product will be handled by consumers, waste infrastructure, and whether it can be made more environmentally sound overall.  

The ethos behind EPR stems in part from the unfair blame and responsibility placed on individuals for their environmental behaviour. We now know that large corporations and the world’s wealthiest one percent are responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental harm. Yet, many consumers are all too familiar with directives about limiting meat consumption, not buying fast fashion, or reducing their use of plastic. While these are all commendable (and sometimes necessary) activities, EPR is part of the pushback to shift the narrative from each person’s “carbon footprint”, to calling on the world’s top actors to do better.  

With this in mind, how should we characterize the largely individual task of sorting household waste? Recently, residents in Victoria, Australia were introduced to an updated collection system, with a new purple-lid bin to sort out glass items. The program also set the target of having residents include “soft plastics” in the already-established yellow bins by 2030. Currently, residents are asked to store soft plastics at home and drop them off at a designated location or recycling centre, although unfortunately, the inconvenience means much of that waste ends up in garbage bins. Many Australians applauded the introduction of a new bin for making their lives easier; though with four different bins, and some remaining exclusions as to what goes in each, the expectations on individual residents are still significant.  

Of course, every waste collection program comes with accompanying education for the public – there’s an adjustment period for any change, and adding a new bin may indeed make lives easier in the long run. Since recycling was first introduced in North America, waste collection has gone through many iterations, each with a change meant to make the collection, sorting and disposal more streamlined.  

In Canada, for example, each major city has slightly different approaches to collecting. Many use the widely recognizable blue bin (plastics and glass), black bin (cardboard and paper), and garbage bin system, with many cities having adopted a green bin for compost. There are also incentives to produce less garbage; in many cities, green bins are collected weekly, but garbage, only bi-weekly. In Montreal, recycling isn’t sorted in households at all, but at a facility post-collection.  

The decisions for each city depend on a number of factors including budget, population, resources, and waste management infrastructure. It’s also important to remember that a robust recycling system, such as the four bins in Victoria, Australia, doesn’t necessarily equal robust management. Indeed, lots of waste (sometimes even organic material), is diverted to landfills when it is unable to be properly sorted at a facility; think products like medication blister packs, which are made with a combination of plastics, aluminium, and paper.  

Ultimately, consumers can’t be taken out of the equation when it comes to waste management. Even when industry and government partners take on more responsibility by providing resources, information, and management, waste generated at home will always be a factor. Education and initiatives to get the public on board are important, otherwise, any system runs the risk of being too convoluted and pushing many people to opt out altogether. 

Image courtesy of concreteplayground.com. 


Zeroing in on Microplastics

By now, the woes of plastic are common knowledge: it’s wasteful, hard to recycle, and can harm the environment in myriad ways. Much like combustion-engine vehicles, plastic use is often a target for change, since it’s so prevalent in our everyday lives. More recently, the conversation has included an even more problematic component to this pervasive material: microplastics.   

What are microplastics? 

Though the meaning is in the name – small, even microscopic particles of plastic – there are actually two different components. First, there are the plastics created intentionally small, such as the so-called “microbeads” used for exfoliation in some toothpastes or facial cleansers. There’s been a lot of buzz around these particles specifically, since they wash easily down the drain, end up in our waterways, and are difficult to capture or track.  

The second aspect of microplastic refers to pieces that break down or shed from a larger plastic product – think of twist-ties on loaves of bread, or bits of a plastic bag ripped in the recycling process. When we drive, microplastic particles from tires are even shed into the atmosphere, most of them too small to see with the naked eye. 

Layers of harm 

We already know that plastic is difficult to reuse and recycle, and even products that are technically recyclable are often not, due to lack of proper infrastructure. Thus, microplastics pose even more of a challenge, since in most cases, we can’t even capture them to dispose of, let alone reuse or recycle. They flow easily into our water, are carried by the wind into our natural environments, or – even more concerning – end up in our bodies 

This happens in a variety of ways, from things like eating out of a plastic container, using plastic kettles and baby bottles, or even just inhaling microscopic particles that float through the air. Though it makes sense that these tiny particles can end up being ingested, what’s concerning is that we don’t have enough long-term research about the impact it has on humans and animals (many species, such as fish, have been found with microplastics in their system). There is some evidence that compounds used in plastic and microplastics can be disruptive to the endocrine system (which regulates our hormones), but as far as ongoing exposure to microplastics, there’s still a lot we don’t know. 

What can we do? 

Since microplastics are hard to track, let alone study, the situation can look pretty bleak. But if anything, this should be even more motivation to stop using and producing so much plastic, and in turn, stop generating microplastics. That means not only making the shift in our daily lives away from plastic products, but continuing to demand better from producers and those in power. There’s also the need for more information, which can help us determine the impact microplastics are having; California recently introduced legislation that helps measure microplastics in the ocean. 

In terms of technological advancement, there’s the case to be made for biodegradable plastic, a frontier that many companies are throwing resources behind. However, it’s crucial that global standards are developed for the compostability of these plastics (some of which has been developed in the U.K.), to ensure these claims are not greenwashed.  

Our plastic problem is massive, and microplastics have an outsized impact – it’s important that they’re not left out of the conversation and efforts for change.