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Keeping food out of the landfill just might save the planet

Food waste is a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and it doesn’t have to be

This is the first in a series on food waste and its environmental, social and economic impacts.

Though combating the climate crisis can feel like an uphill battle against insurmountable odds, there is one thing that everyone can do to make a big difference.

Even though, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 71 per cent of the carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere every day can be traced to just 100 corporations, the onus to change has been put on individual people. We see it all the time in campaigns to phase out plastic straws, recycle bottles and cans, drive hybrid or electric cars, use more active transportation systems or install solar panels on homes. We should be doing those things, but their impacts pale in comparison to those of the 100 largest polluters. However, there is one area that we can look to that will make a large impact: what we eat.

“Over 11 million metric tons of food is wasted every year in Canada. We need to do something about that. It’s not good for the environment, and it actually matters. It’s food waste,” said North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney, who recently tabled a bill in the House of Commons to combat food waste in Canada. “We know that 4 million people across Canada don’t get enough to eat every day. How do we make sure that we’re doing the environmentally right thing, but also looking at how to support organizations that are doing that food security part and making sure people get what they need?”

When food goes into the landfill, it does not decompose the way you’d think. What happens is the food gets entombed in the rest of the garbage, the weight of which squeezes all of the air out and creates an anaerobic environment. From there, the food emits methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas that is far more potent (20 to 85 times depending on the time scale considered) than carbon dioxide.

“If we waste one tonne of food it’s the equivalent of emitting 5.6 tonnes of CO2,” Blaney said. “That really worries me.”

Multiply that by the 11 million tonnes of food that end up in the landfill every year in Canada and you can see the scope of the problem.

Per capita, Canadians throw out 78 kilograms of food per year. While a lot of this waste comes from the home, a good portion of it comes from the production, transportation and sale of food. Think bruised apples in grocery stores, surplus potatoes that don’t make it out of the fields or muffins that go past their expiration dates at a coffee shop. Wasting food also means that all of the packaging and transportation energy is wasted, and much of that garbage — though recyclable — also ends up in the landfill (approximately half of waste disposed in the Comox Strathcona Waste Management area is recyclable).

On April 13, Blaney tabled a bill in the House of Commons to establish a national day recognizing food waste and to task the Minister of Agriculture with establishing a national strategy to reduce food waste across the board. To Blaney, the issue has two sides: the environmental protection side and the issue of food insecurity. There already is a lot being done in communities to repurpose food that would otherwise be sent to the landfill, so Blaney wants to focus on preventing extra food from being produced in the first place.

RELATED: Anti-Food Waste bill introduced by North Island-Powell River MP

“That can be a simple thing like letting people know how much to buy and really being responsible about how much food they’re bringing,” she said. “At this point, about 20 per cent of Canada’s methane emissions that are coming from landfills. That’s just food going into the garbage.”

The food security side of the issue is just as important. There are some groups in Campbell River diverting food from the landfill to the people who need it. The Campbell River Food Bank brings in truckloads of unsalable food from grocery stores, 85 per cent of which is given to clients. The other 15 per cent is given to local farmers to feed to livestock.

“We don’t send anything to the landfill…We like to think that we’re doing our good deeds,” said Debbie Willis, manager at the Food Bank. “It’s a win win, because it saves them on waste management fees, and it’s not going to the landfill. We use 85 per cent of what we get, so 15 per cent of it going to the farmers and the rest going to our consumption.”

Campbell River is also home to the Greenways Land Trust Fruit Tree Gleaning program, where volunteers pick fruit trees belonging to people who either cannot or do not want to do the work themselves. Katie Lavoie, who helps run the program says the fruit picked goes a long way to providing nutritious organic produce to people who need it.

“Last year we got 3,300 lbs of fruit, which is awesome,” she said. “I also did some surveying at the end of the year last year and a lot of people said they wouldn’t have picked it on their own.”

Though there have been some moves made, more needs to happen to make a real impact. In the face of the climate crisis, it can be hard to feel like you’re making a difference. Reducing food waste is one way that regular people can make a tangible difference in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

”We’re always going to have waste from food… but it’s about lowering it so it’s not such a burden on our system and doesn’t create those emissions that are not good for the environment,” Blaney said.

RELATED: Campbell River fruit tree project carries on despite pandemic

The second part of this series will look at what happens to food when it reaches the landfill, and how composting technology will help reduce emissions from food waste.

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