Since its introduction in 2016, Calgary’s green cart program has reduced the amount of food and yard waste ending up in landfills by 50 per cent.

“It’s huge when it comes to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Laura Hamilton, a waste diversion specialist with the City of Calgary, explaining that diverting food waste away from landfills causes the reduction.

The program, which separates organic waste from traditional trash, along with new food and yard waste bylaws and food waste bylaws for businesses, have all been a success.

But despite this local success, Canada’s food waste problem is one of the worst in the world. A 2019 report by Second Harvest, a Toronto agency that collects surplus food and distributes it to various other organizations in need, suggests that approximately 58 per cent of all food produced in Canada — 35.5 million tonnes — is wasted, while a third of that wasted food is salvageable and could be sent to communities in need across the country.

The report found the value of all food lost or wasted in Canada is an astonishing $49 billion, while, on average, there is $1,766 of avoidable food loss and waste per household.

Rob Ironside, an environmental engineer and director of social enterprising for the LeftOvers Foundation in Calgary — an agency that rescues food from being thrown in the garbage and ensures it gets to service agencies in need — says that the food waste problem can be managed, but it relies on everyone working towards a common goal.

“It’s a very, very manageable problem, but it’s just at a scale now that nobody is offering a real solution to it,” says Ironside. “It’s not like we need to discover something, or come up with this new huge model. Somebody needs to just show up and grab it and do something with it.”

“You’re not going to solve food insecurity by just throwing a day-old baked good at someone.” – Rob Ironside

In terms of prevention, Ironside says that consumers need to be incredibly conscious when purchasing food. He explains that although green carts and mandatory composting is a step in the right direction, it’s not a perfect solution.

“Before, if your only option was to throw food out into the garbage, you’d feel more guilty about it,” says Ironside. “Now, because you can compost it, you could say, ‘I’m doing a good thing, I’m composting,’ when in reality, you’re still contributing waste to the entire process for about 200 grams of fertilizer.”

Ironside says this lackadaisical attitude towards food waste, especially in an era in which city-wide composting exists, almost lets consumers off the hook, despite being the biggest contributors to the problem.

“Everyone usually thinks that it must be restaurants or grocery stores who are the number one culprit, but it’s consumers,” says Ironside. “Overall, we waste approximately 50 per cent of food that’s either grown in or imported into Canada and half of that half comes from consumers buying perfectly good food, bringing it home, forgetting about it and throwing it out.”

The problem is a social one

While LeftOvers primarily focuses on diverting salvageable food to not-for-profit agencies like Inn from the Cold — helping them offset a food cost so they can focus on their other programs and keeping good food out of landfills. They have also recently launched a mobile food truck service that Ironside describes as an “affordable grocery store,” in which they can address food insecurity in the city.

According to Ironside, bringing affordable groceries to a community in need, rather than the other way around, is, “How you legitimately tackle the issue.” Yet, it seems that diverting food that would otherwise go to waste and distributing it to those who are lacking food security would be a straightforward solution to both problems.

However, Ironside suggests that it’s not as simple as it may seem.

“You can’t just walk up to people that are hungry and offer them free food,” says Ironside. “You’re not going to solve food insecurity by just throwing a day-old baked good at someone.”

Ultimately, Ironside believes that to solve these issues, food needs to be re-evaluated on a global scale.

“In a country where we have billionaires — people with multiple properties, their own jets — the fact that approximately one-in-10 Canadians, on a weekly basis, are struggling to balance paying rent and buying nutritious groceries, is a failure of our economy. That is just ridiculous,” he says.

“I understand that we’re going to live in a world where there is homelessness and there are billionaires no matter what we do, but the fact that there are four million Canadians who struggle with this shows that it is a flawed system.”

Despite these flaws, Ironside believes that proper food education is a must, something that both Hamilton and Fabrizio Bertolo, manager of Waste and Recycling for the town of Cochrane agree on, despite the different sizes of their municipalities.

“Communication, food education and continuing to try to reach all of the different personalities is key in trying to reduce food waste, regardless of where you live,“ says Bertolo, who has worked with the Town of Cochrane on their Zero Waste Framework.
Rob IronsideWEBRob Ironside, an environmental engineer and director of social enterprising for the LeftOvers Foundation in Calgary says that the food waste problem can be managed, but it relies on everyone working towards a common goal. Photo by Colin Macgillivray
The initiative started in 2012, with the town hoping to divert 80 per cent of their waste from the landfill by 2020. So far, they have diverted 60 per cent through composting programs similar to those in place in Calgary. That said, Bertolo acknowledges that curbing food waste is not something that can be done overnight.

“We know it takes a while, but we need to start somewhere,” says Bertolo.

As per the City of Calgary, “Food waste is definitely on our radar,” with Hamilton saying that school tours of their composting facility, public presentations and direct interactions with residents will continue as Calgary looks to further food waste initiatives in the future, with an audit planned for next year where they will analyze the food waste that has come in since the initiative started.

As Hamilton, Ironside and Bertolo all recognize the food waste problem, they encourage residents to do their part by only buying what they need, freezing food rather than tossing it into the compost and trying to be extra conscious of their food waste.

“It’s really hard to get people to change their behaviour,” says Ironside. “I live and breathe food waste and I still throw out food. I still mess up. It’s really hard to be disciplined about it, but it’s super important to have those systems in place at home to ensure you’re not throwing out food that doesn’t have to be.”

This story appears in the March/April issue of the Calgary Journal. You can find an online copy here and at newsstands across the city.

Editor: Antoine Fecteau |

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