The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: garbage

A Crying Shame

“The waste of plenty is the resource of scarcity,” noted Thomas Love Peacock, and in Canada, right now, there is no better example of this than what we do with our food. If it’s true that we are what we eat, then it’s also true that we become what we toss out.

So, it’s only logical, then, that we grow a little troubled and philosophical upon discovering that each year Canadians throw out 200,000 tonnes of food into our landfills – $31 billion dollars worth. That’s $31 billions dollars of lost revenue – all at the same time that roughly 850,000 people turn to food banks for help each month. And it’s troubling to learn that 13% of Canadians lived in a constant state of food insecurity.

Or think of all this in another way: according to Cantech we lose 2% of our GDP each year to food waste. Adding fuel to the fire is Tommy Tobin’s observation, that $31 billion is greater than the combined GDP of the 29 poorest countries in the world.

It seems immoral and becomes increasingly so as we think of the amount of people in Canada who are food insecure. Why can’t we get our act together on this, say through solid food diversion programs practiced by numerous European countries? What does it say about how we value food, those in low-income, or ethical responsibility when 40% of all food in Canada is thrown into the garbage? Clearly we have some work to do – lots of work, in fact.

Fortunately, the National Zero Waste Council announced a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy a short while ago. It’s a great initiative but it requires support – from citizens, food companies, government, media, and producers, including farmers. The strategy suggests a national target of 50% food waste reduction by 2030. It also puts out another intriguing idea: use federal tax incentives to encourage businesses to donate their excess good food to charities instead of dumping it off at the landfill.

It’s important to realize that 50% of food waste is generated by consumers directly, so a lot of the needed change can start with us. Companies can enhance their infrastructure to begin diverting their food earlier in the process. Governments can help with legislation and resourcing. It can be a win-win-win.

The arrival of this initiative is welcome, but it comes at a time when we are already behind American and European efforts. There’s a lot of catching up to do, but at least with a national strategy we can now move quickly – if we wish to. Since we say we care about hungry families, and since we maintain that we are an ethical, value-driven people, we must do something.

“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,” Pope Francis said recently. And yet it’s more than that. It also about tossing out the better angels of our nature. We are better than this in our values and in our abilities, but not in our choices. That time has now come.

 

 

 

 

Food Waste? There’s an App for That

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WE’VE BEEN AWARE OF THE PROBLEM for decades, have wished some solution(s) could be found, and are slowly working towards finding ways to divert good and nutritious food from landfills. All of the efforts in this regard are driven by a simple ethical question: how can we be tossing out perfectly good food when hunger is growing in our communities?

In reality, a vast array of initiatives is underway around the globe to tackle this dilemma head on. One of the more interesting ways to approach the issue comes from recent MIT graduates Emily Malina and Ricky Ashenfelter. Key to their success has been the ability to divert quality food from landfills as soon as it becomes surplus or redundant.

To facilitate the effort, Malina and Ashenfelter developed Spoiler Alert – an app that quickly connects business with business, or business with charities or non-profits, and effectively makes connections between the surplus and the demand as it’s required elsewhere. In fact, the transactions are sometimes so quick that the deal is struck inside of five minutes.

These two innovators grew troubled that, while some 50 million Americans face hunger, nearly one-third of food inventory goes to waste in America. That’s 20 pounds per person, according the UN’s Environment Program. This is a predicament just begging to be overcome, and many are endeavouring to do just that. Malina and Ashenfelter are attempting to address it at its source.  Soon they hope to expand their efforts from the New England area to all the U.S. and around the world.

Often it’s just easier for food surpluses to just be tossed in the landfill. It’s the least expensive option for companies, especially those looking to externalize their costs off onto someone else, or even the future itself. Stores are often required to make quick decisions about products soon to expire or spoil. Surprisingly, many of those decision makers aren’t aware that there are other, more ethical options. Malina feels that there are also economic reasons for locating better places for the surplus than merely landfills:

“Many people come to this issue from an environmental or social perspective, which is absolutely right, but it also has serious financial implications for food businesses, many of which are dealing with extremely slim margins across the industry. In America, businesses are throwing away $50 billion worth of lost revenue and hauling fees in wasted food.”

That’s a lot of lost capital, and it’s where Spoiler Alert wants to create its greatest impact. The application is designed to remove obstacles to food donations, by connecting retailers, producers, and supplies to nearby organizations for donation, or, in the case of products that are no longer edible, companies that make fertilizer and animal feed. As soon as inventory becomes available, notices are sent out and all transactions are recorded in the app itself, thereby making it easier for donors to prepare tax deductions. The operation offers a secondary market for discounted food sales, provides new revenue streams, and simplifies documentation.

It’s only a matter of time until ethical demand from citizens prompts governments to legislate and provide incentives to divert food from landfills and onto the tables and cupboards of those who are hungry. Europe is already far ahead of North America in this regard, such as in France, where grocers that deliberately destroy unsold goods face hefty fees, perhaps even jail time.

But while keeping good food out of landfills is a noble quest, the ultimate task, especially on a planet already under duress in its attempts to feed billions, is to seek efficiencies where surpluses are greatly reduced and better planning will mean that the world will produce only that which it can eat. Somewhat like some food banks, Spoiler Alert sees itself as possibly working itself out of existence. “If we can get to the point where there is zero wasted food,” Malina says, “I will feel like we have done our job.”

However all these efforts to keep good food out of landfills and waste bins shakes out, it is becoming a global movement driven as much by efficient business plans as ethical concerns for the hungry. There are numerous apps dealing with diverting food available. Spoiler Alert shows what can happen when creative people create immediate connections that can head food supplies off in another direction almost immediately. Food that is good enough to eat is also too precious to waste.

“Making Food Waste Illegal?”

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AT YESTERDAY’S PRESS CONFERENCE FOR THE Curb Hunger Food Drive for the London Food Bank a fellow named Steven approached me and asked if I had heard of all the things Europe is doing to divert food from the trash. We talked about the situation for a few minutes and he closed by saying, “Why can’t we do something about it in Canada. I mean, we have all this food, and with hunger growing it seems a crime to just let stores and restaurants throw good food away.”

It appears that a town councillor in France felt it was criminal too, and he recently succeeded in getting a national law passed that would ban supermarkets in France from tossing out or destroying unsold food. And it goes farther. The same law mandates that all unsold but edible food should be donated to charities for immediate distribution to low-income families. And further yet, it prohibits food stores from pouring bleach over food (a practice used sparingly in France) in their dumpster bins lest some hungry person eats it and gets sick, leaving the door open to all kinds of liability issues.

It was inevitable that something like this would eventually come out and that France, with its social progressive kind of politics, would lead the way. The fact that it emerged through the efforts of one individual is even more impressive.

The timing of something like this couldn’t be more important. The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) came out with a staggering reminder last week that almost half the food produced in the world is never eaten. In Canada, the food thrown in the dump is in the billions of dollars – all at the time that food banks are staggering under the pressure of high demand.

We have to start somewhere on this problem, but targeting grocery stores is perhaps too simple a way to go about it. Such establishments have been important community partners, provided generously to food banks, and are slowly, and with much citizen pressure, placing an increased emphasis on locally grown and fresh food. We can target them, but the problem is really a societal one, not merely a capitalist oversight.

The UNFAO reminds us that citizens in North American, often awash in food choices, discard far more supplies than their European counterparts. Yes, supermarkets are culpable as well, but so are our restaurants, farmers, hospitals, military facilities, and even government institutions and citizens. We – all of us – have a problem with waste and our refusal to act upon the environmental damage this facet of our individual and collective lives is creating is part of the reason why we are so late in coming to terms with this overabundance problem.

Yes, it’s a good thing that France is challenging supermarkets to donate their surplus to charities, but that’s not really the solution we would want, is it? We require more efficiencies in the food system – growers, storage companies, shippers, sellers, consumers – rather than by just creating a kind of humanitarian impulse at the end of it all to layer over our mass consumption. And the answers to poverty don’t live in charities like food banks but in solid policies that invest in affordable housing, mental health and addictions, education, and the big one right now, secure employment with a livable wage. Anything less than an integrated approach will never heal the environment, eliminate poverty, or make us a people with activated consciences.

Yes, we have to start somewhere – I get it. But why don’t we start together, all of us, and move a country rich in food into a nation wealthy in ingenuity and citizen responsibility. Food is a great place to start, since the necessity of it calls for something better from each of us, and all of us. Healthy and sustainable food production and consumption is one of the ways out of our individual and collective lethargy. We can go big and go home, from refining the most sophisticated of food processing plants and supermarkets to our own kitchens. We require food to live but our handling of it might now generate our chance to evolve.

The Seven Billion Kilogram Dilemma

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WHEN THE LONDON FOOD BANK HAD ITS FIRST city-wide food drive back in 1986, we were told to expect between 40-50,000 pounds. We weren’t fully prepared for the over 200,000 pounds that came in. Those fire stations charged with receiving the donations were swamped and an extra warehouse had to be located to store all those supplies collected over 10 days.

As a city, we were new to this kind of initiative and much of the food was past its due date. We heard from many folks that they just wanted to help and that they just cleaned out their cupboards and refrigerators of items that had been in their stocks for months. It was a lesson for all of us. For those of us leading the effort, we needed to do a better job of communicating what kind of supplies were required. And for citizens themselves, there was the need to be more selective in what they would donate. We learned those lessons and the generosity of the London community has never waned.

Yet I never forgot that experience and how abundant food is in Canada. Maybe that’s part of the problem. In those early years of food banking we learned that Canadians threw out one-sixth of their food without it ever leaving the package. Landfills were full of otherwise edible foodstuffs. Sadly, it’s a practice that has changed little in three decades.

A report released last summer, with support from London’s Ivey Business School, determined that Canadians toss out 7 billion kilograms worth of edible food each year – roughly 15 billion pounds of food in 12 months. In dollar terms, that $27 billion.

The waste happens everywhere – farms, stores, markets, and processors. Yet, over half of the waste occurs in Canadian households. There’s no point in trying to lay blame – we all share it – but the real culprit lies in our eating and shopping habits. We have grown used to have numerous choices of various products and we often overstock just because it’s so attractively placed and sometimes on sale. We desire it to look good and most often select only that perfect-looking item – anything with a blemish can get tossed. We’re just so used to it and there always seems to be enough unblemished stuff. Farmers and others along the food chain often adopt similar patterns because it’s what consumers demand and that’s what drives the economy.

Except it shouldn’t, and we all know it. It’s one thing to grow and process good and healthy products and to eat well, but it’s another to accept a system that is predicated on waste. Habits die hard, and when it comes to food, Canadians have become habitual creatures.

We are also pretty good with numbers, so here’s a telling one. That 7 billion kilogram figure means that we toss out one kilogram of food for every person on this planet. For a nation and a people founded on the principles of social justice, it means it is time once again to live up to those ideals.

Next post: What Can Be Done About It?

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