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

Abbotsford Police Department’s public service counter reopens

Some modified protocols in place for the public due to COVID-19

VIDEO: Abbotsford Time Lapse 2020

YouTube user posts video showing time lapse of several Abbotsford locations

Abbotsford resident receives award from B.C. Historical Federation

Bill Glasgow honoured for work on British Columbia History magazine

VIDEO: #FreeThemAll group protests for prisoner rights in Abbotsford

About 20 participate in car demonstration outside of Matsqui Institution on Sunday

Abbotsford Christian’s Meinen named 2A all-star

Zach Meinen named to provincial all-star squad for 2019-20

Trudeau to seek 10 days of paid sick leave for Canadian workers, says talks are ongoing

Paid sick leave is key to keeping COVID-19 spread under control, prime minister says

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

New platform allows readers to make a one-time or ongoing donation to support local journalism

Vancouver Island hasn’t seen a new homegrown case of COVID-19 in two weeks

Island’s low and steady transmission rate chalked up to several factors

Eight people arrested in Victoria homeless camp after enforcement order issued

Those living in tents were given until May 20 to move indoors

Andrew Weaver says he was ready to defeat John Horgan government

Independent MLA blasts B.C. Greens over LNG opposition

20 dead in COVID-19 outbreak at Langley Lodge

There were two new cases detected, according to the Lodge’s update

44% fewer passengers flew on Canadian airlines in March 2020 than in 2019

COVID-19 pandemic has hit airlines hard as travel remains low

UPDATE: One person dead, two in critical condition after Highway 1 collision in Langley

A man and woman were taken to hospital in critical condition

Commercial rent relief applications open as feds encourage landlords to apply

Program would see government cover 50 per cent of the rent

Most Read