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

Better ways to use antibiotics on the farm

Canadian Beef Industry Conference session discusses dependence on antibiotics

Stettler Community Christmas Hamper Society seeking donations and volunteer support

Program helps to make the season brighter for local families

Male pedestrian dead after collision with train in Blackfalds

Man from Red Deer pronounced dead at the scene

Halloween Howl: a not-to-be-missed event organized by local group

Halloween fun in support of Stettler and District Crisis Aid

Sylvan Lake shoreline flags wrongfully replaced by well-meaning citizen

Al Cameron of VVOC says a loose thread is not enough to replace the Canadian flags on lakeshore

VIDEO: Alberta teen found guilty of shooting German tourist, leaving him paralyzed

The boy, who cannot be publicly identified, was from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation

Leaders pour it on with rallies, boosts for candidates as campaign reaches peak

The federal election campaign has reached a crescendo

Not a political question: Thunberg calls for climate action in Alberta

Edmonton police estimated the size of the crowd at about 4,000

Rebels drop third straight against Oil Kings

Rebels have given up 19 goals, scord 2 in three games

Zantac, the over-the-counter heartburn drug, pulled in Canada, U.S.

Health Canada also investigates possible carcinogen in some ranitidine drugs

Greta Thunberg calls for climate action in Alberta, but doesn’t talk oilsands

Swedish teen was met with some oil and gas industry supporters who came in a truck convoy

Scheer denies spreading ‘misinformation’ in predicting unannounced Liberal taxes

Conservative leader had claimed that a potential NDP-Liberal coalition could lead to a hike in GST

Kawhi Leonard, former Toronto Raptor, welcomed back to Vancouver at pre-season game

Fans go wild at pre-season game between L.A. Clippers and Dallas Mavericks at Rogers Arena

Greens and NDP go head to head on West Coast; Scheer takes fight to Bernier

Trudeau turns focus to key ridings outside Toronto after two days in Quebec

Most Read