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

Just Posted

Warning issued after several overdoses in Castlegar

Interior Health says the overdoses appear to be the result of cocaine contaminated with fentanyl.

Kootenay-Columbia candidates attend Creston Valley Chamber of Commerce 2019 election forum

About 120 people attended the Creston Valley Chamber of Commerce 2019 election forum on Oct. 16 at the Prince Charles Theatre.

Green and NDP candidates talk strategic voting at Nelson public meeting

Wayne Stetski and Abra Brynne traded ideas but made no concessions for this election

Annual Windermere Fire Halloween Haunted House bigger than ever

Less scares earlier; more scares later at annual haunted house

Kootenay-Columbia candidate cautious after getting threats

Trev Miller of the Animal Protection Party carries on campaigning under shadow of threats, abusive emails

Greta Thunberg meets with First Nations chief in Fort McMurray

Thunberg has turned her protest against climate change into a global movement

Canucks hang on for 3-2 win over Rangers in New York

Vancouver scores three times in first period

More beef products recalled due to possible E. coli contamination

The food safety watchdog has been investigating possible E. coli 0157:H7

B.C. VIEWS: How to get the best deal on your ICBC car insurance

ICBC slowly being dragged into the 21st century

Pot legalization has gone ‘well’, but ‘yellow flags’ on vaping: task force chair

Canada legalized cannabis for non-medical use on Oct. 17, 2018,

ELECTION 2019: Federal leaders hit final 24 hours of campaign

Many leaders remain in B.C. for the final hours of the campaign

Most Read