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In 2018, Ontario unveiled an ambitious plan to drastically reduce food waste by 2025. The province’s framework was full of smart ideas, from rescuing surplus food to enhancing waste data collection. But two months after the plan was introduced, the Liberals were ousted and Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives took power. Efforts stalled.
Now, nearly six years later, experts say the provincial government has not done enough to achieve its own targets. “They have done very little since and, if anything, appear to be backtracking,” Peter Hargreave, president of the environment consultancy Policy Integrity, said.
Over 60 per cent of the province’s food waste still ends up in landfills. This growing pile of decomposing food has serious environmental consequences: it contributes to six per cent of Ontario’s methane emissions, a greenhouse gas more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years.
But efforts in Ontario to stop food from ending up in landfills are patchy at best. Cities that can afford the multimillion-dollar start-up costs of green bin programs are leading the way, while businesses lag behind. Meanwhile, the amount of waste being thrown out is steadily rising alongside record levels of population growth, jumping six per cent between 2017 and 2022.
During its five-year reign, efforts by the Ontario Progressive Conservatives to reduce food waste have amounted to a single $5-million donation toward food-rescue organizations during the pandemic, according to the province’s own progress report. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Experts say it’s too late for the province to achieve the targets set out in 2018. But food waste can be significantly — and quickly — reduced if governments, businesses and people get on board. Here’s how to get there.
Ontario towns and cities diverted 1.2 million tonnes of organic waste from landfills in 2021, nearly triple the amount diverted in 2002. Most organic waste is food, but it can also include other biodegradable products like yard waste, paper towels or unfinished wood. Processing can transform it into renewable energy, compost or fertilizer.
Where green bin programs exist, they’ve been overwhelmingly successful. The Regional Municipality of York — which represents 1.2 million people in nine municipalities — diverts 97 per cent of its organic waste, processing almost 10 per cent of the province’s total diverted organic waste in 2021.
The problem is green bin programs are only feasible when costs are spread out over a large tax base. That leaves small municipalities at a disadvantage. “Cost is a huge deal,” Huda Oda, the waste, recycling and climate change manager at the Municipality of Chatham-Kent, said. Though her jurisdiction spans an area four times the size of the city of Toronto, it holds only 3.6 per cent of the comparable tax base.
In the city of London, $15 million has been invested into launching a green bin program in 2024, after years of delays. “We hoped to implement it sooner but the budget wasn’t available,” Jay Stanford, director of environment, fleet and solid waste at the city, said. Once up and running, it will set the city back $4 million a year.
Green bins work. But not all municipalities can afford to run programs as expenses soar and budgets tighten. Ontario hasn’t provided funding to help, either. Meanwhile, Quebec committed to investing $1.2 billion into organic waste reduction by 2030, with the provincial government also helping establish local compost collection services and processing facilities.
Emily Alfred, a waste campaigner for the Toronto Environmental Alliance, thinks food waste is too often described as a consumer-driven problem. It’s an attitude that lets businesses — which contribute to almost 45 per cent of Ontario’s organic waste — avoid accountability, she says. Culprits include food processors, retail stores, schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels.
Business sends 50 per cent more food waste to landfills than consumers but is subject to virtually no oversight when it comes to what’s thrown out and where it goes. “The sector is completely unregulated,” Alfred said.
In 2018, the province’s guideline set out food waste reduction targets of 50 or 70 per cent for businesses, depending on their size and subsector. But a 2023 report by Ontario’s auditor general found the province has not yet informed businesses about the targets, or offered guidance on how to measure and track food waste.
The lack of direction from the government makes compliance difficult and enforcement impossible. Of the establishments that try to divert food waste to composting facilities, the auditor found 22 per cent of it still ends up in a landfill anyway.
In 2023, Ontario implemented a new digital system to track the journey of recyclables — including glass, plastics and paper — from the point of collection to processing. The new protocols also include standardized audits. That way, the province can hold businesses accountable for the waste they generate. It’s a model that could be rolled out for organic waste.
Hargreave says businesses represent the biggest opportunity under the province’s plan. Right now, it’s more convenient and cheaper to throw out food — after all, these establishments manage their own waste, at their own cost, through private vendors. “Everything is pointing toward making a decision to send waste to landfill,” he said.
Multi-unit residential buildings present a similar opportunity to reduce food waste, Alfred said. These dwellings represent more than 27 per cent of Ontario households and send much more food to landfills than detached homes: a 2020 report from the University of Ottawa, for example, found that only 17 per cent of food waste in multi-unit residential buildings is kept out of landfill, compared to 44 per cent of waste from single-family homes.
The failure to simplify organics collection in these buildings is part of the reason why southern Ontario residents still throw out an average of 43 kilograms of food every year, despite many having access to green bins.
There is no standard from the province for food waste sorting and collection in multi-unit residences. Some buildings offer green bins, often tucked away in basements or parking lots. Others don’t. Confusing waste-sorting systems can exacerbate contamination rates: if one person puts the wrong thing in a green bin, all the contents get sent to a landfill.
To combat this, the City of Hamilton introduced building codes in 2021 that require new multi-unit buildings to have separate waste chutes for garbage, recycling and organics. “That’s one of the big things we’re advocating for,” Alfred said. Simplifying waste separation increases participation, according to recent research from the University of British Columbia.
Most people agree less wasted food makes everyone better off, but incentives are needed to actually adjust behaviour, according to Tammara Soma, an assistant professor at the school of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University.
Soma pointed to France, which brought in fines for grocers that throw out edible food — tied to a percentage of revenue — under a 2016 food waste ban. As of 2019, more than 2,700 supermarkets were diverting 46,000 tonnes of food a year away from landfills and to places like food banks. Nationally, food waste in France has decreased by 10 per cent since the ban.
Closer to home, Vancouver banned food waste from landfills in 2015 by applying a 50 per cent surcharge to waste with excessive food scraps. The region now has one of the highest waste diversion rates in the country.
In 2018, Ontario announced a similar ban would be put in place by 2022. But nothing came of that promise. In September 2023, the auditor general found the province has not moved forward with its commitment to phase out organic waste from landfills, citing the impacts of the pandemic.
Financial penalties on disposal can raise revenue for food waste-related projects, according to Hargreave. In Quebec, earnings from a landfill charge go towards improving organics collection and processing. The fee is paid by weight, so small businesses only face a slight increase in their yearly costs.
Putting the onus on consumers isn’t where this conversation should end. But it can’t be ignored that more than half of organic waste in Ontario still comes from households. It’s tempting to believe that if people knew the true costs of food waste, they’d throw out less. But that’s not always the case. Over decades, awareness campaigns have had varying degrees of success.
In the United Kingdom, a public awareness campaign called Love Food Hate Waste has been largely credited for driving an 18-per-cent reduction in household food waste between 2007 and 2018. The campaign was especially effective at a time of falling wages and rising food prices following the global financial crisis, focusing on new habits that could limit food waste and save money.
Those efforts were complicated from 2013 to 2015, when wages started to outpace inflation. In those three years, food waste jumped 4.4 per cent.
But that’s no reason to stop raising the alarm. Julie Hordowick, program manager for waste strategy in York Region, said people need to be reminded they are part of the solution. Education efforts have been central to York’s waste management strategy for over a decade, but residents still underestimate how much food they toss out. “It’s like any behavioural change,” she said. “It takes a long time and consistent messaging.”
Michael von Massow, a professor of food, agricultural and resource economics at the University of Guelph, said helping people understand their consumption habits is key to reducing food waste.
For example, Ontario Hydro, one of the province’s largest energy providers, compares residents’ energy usage over several months, also showing how they measure up to their neighbours. A 2009 study found these small changes to pricing breakdowns had a demonstrable conservation effect for residential users.
The solution to Ontario’s food waste problem is not one, but a series of solutions that build incrementally on each other, he said. Food waste is often a personal dilemma that requires personalized solutions. “People don’t think about what they throw out,” von Massow said. But, when people understand their actions, “they’re more likely to do something about it.”
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