Canada ranks 17th out of 17 countries and gets a "D" grade on municipal waste generation in a recent report card by the Conference Board of Canada. It says waste generated per capita in Canada has been steadily rising since 1990, and that the country generates more waste than any of the other countries studied, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany.
Municipal governments in Canada spent more than $1.8 billion in waste collection in 2008, of which a third was residential waste, according to Statistics Canada. Much of that garbage was made up of food waste, which is taking a lot of money out of taxpayer's pockets and causing a lot of harm to the environment.
"It may seem like a little thing to throw out the uneaten half of your sandwich or the limp carrots in your fridge. Collectively, though, this behaviour has significant environmental costs," says the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario in a report called A Terrible Waste: The Environmental Costs of Throwing our Food Away.
"Resources that went into the production, packaging, transportation and storage of food - and that are now squandered - could have been saved or put to another use. There are additional environmental consequences associated with disposal of that wasted food."
These include the use of water and energy resources, in addition to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. "An estimated 20 per cent of global GHG emissions arise from the production and preparation of food," says the report. "To add insult to injury, when that food goes uneaten, methane - a GHG 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide - is generated if the food goes to landfill. It has been estimated that if avoidable food waste was eliminated, the reduction of GHG emissions would be equivalent to taking one in five cars off the road."
All the garbage and food scraps that Canadians generate must go somewhere. Statistics Canada says the average diversion rate (waste that was diverted to recycling and composting) increased from 22 per cent in 2002 to 25 per cent in 2008.
Most of the rest of the garbage goes to municipal landfill sites, and less than five per cent is incinerated.
Another environmental concern related to landfills is leachate. "As liquid moves through the landfill, it picks up a variety of toxic and polluting components in large or trace amounts forming leachate, which can potentially contaminate ground and surface water," says the Statistics Canada report, Human Activity and the Environment. "Sanitary landfills control the types and quantities of incoming waste and use liners and leachate collection and treatment systems to prevent water and soil contamination."
But as the Conference Board report points out, "Although there is ample space to create landfill sites in Canada, many residents are opposed to having landfills close to their communities." It outlines the problems that the City of Toronto faced when its main landfill site reached capacity. With no sites available near the city, one proposal would have shipped the garbage by rail to Kirkland Lake, Ont., some 590 km north of the city, where it would have been dumped in an abandoned mine. The Kirkland Lake residents objected and the idea was scrapped. For a couple of years Toronto trucked its garbage to a landfill site in Michigan. Finally the city purchased its own landfill site near London, Ont.
"To achieve more sustainable municipal waste management practices, the challenge will be to reduce the amount of solid waste generated, while increasing the amount of waste diverted from landfills through recycling and other initiatives in an economically feasible way," says the Conference Board. "Canadians must also realize that economic growth cannot come at the expense of the environment."
To help cut down food waste, Canadians need to rethink the concept of buying their food in bulk to save money. Buying in bulk encourages waste because often food is left over. In the U.K., the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has encouraged retailers to initiate programs that reduce food waste.
The U.K. has also developed new food labelling guidelines, encouraging retailers to stop using "display until" and "sell by" labels because they cause consumers to throw out the food even when it is still safe to eat it. WRAP's website offers recipes for leftovers and tips about how consumers can reduce waste and save money.
The David Suzuki Foundation's Queen of Green site (www.queenofgreen.ca) offers these tips for ending food waste:
- Take produce out of plastic bags, which suffocate fresh produce and speed up the decay process.
- Don't wash produce until you are ready to eat it. Moisture encourages decomposition and mould growth.
- Don't rip off fruit stems, because once living cells are broken, microorganisms start to grow. Keep produce whole as long as possible.
- Eat the most perishable items first. "Raspberries last a few days; potatoes can hang around for about a month," says the site.