According to the David Suzuki Foundation, half of all food produced worldwide is wasted—discarded during processing, transport, grocery stores, and kitchens.
Every Canadian is responsible for about $700 worth of food wasted annually, and in Toronto alone, taxpayers pay nearly $10 million each year getting rid of food waste that is not composted.
Grocery stores are solid contributors to food waste. The CBC reports food waste costs Canada a whopping $31 billion a year, and retailers are responsible for about ten percent.
Why are grocery stores such contributors to waste, and is there a solution?
First of all, more than 30 percent of fruits and vegetables in North America don’t even make it onto store shelves because they are not attractive enough for discerning consumers. Secondly, profit margins are thin in the grocery world, so alternatives to waste are often cost prohibitive. And finally, Canada doesn’t have a federal food waste policy, though progress is on its way in our home and native land.
Halifax and Vancouver both have organic waste bans and mandatory compost programs for homes, multi-unit residential buildings, commercial buildings, and even grocery stores. Although commercially challenging, there is a scattering of grocery stores in BC, Quebec, Ontario, and other places packaging up damaged or nearly expired products and donating them to charities that assist people (and animals!) in need. Once considered a marginal commercial pipe dream, food waste reduction in independent restaurants, groceries, and markets is on many a-radar and while global food waste increases among multinationals, small shops are taking a small but important chunk out of this trend.
Brianne Miller, founder of Zero Waste Market, is intent on making an impact on waste production in the grocery sector, one container at a time. Her project, Zero Waste Market, has been in operation as a pop-up shop for about a year, and she is currently scouting Vancouver real estate for a permanent location.
“We are planning to be relatively small in size because being bulk takes less space and the business model depends on local suppliers,” says Miller. “We are already supporting more than 40 local businesses with the pop up shops, and because we have products coming from nearby, transportation and shipping are shortened. We don’t need a lot of storage or inventory on hand.”
Although the business model is radically different from the mass, global shipping network upon which conventional grocery chains rely, Miller says with some careful planning, the zero waste model is feasible at a larger scale.
“It is trickier the bigger you go in terms of what people expect, and it depends on how people define “‘zero waste’—it’s subjective,” she says.
Miller’s store operates on zero waste principles that others may not, including enabling customers to bring their own containers for bulk items and factoring in indirect waste streams like transportation.
“We have a system to pre-weigh containers, whereas this process is super complicated in other stores,” says Miller. “In larger stores it would be feasible only if they allowed people to bring own containers and made it simple.”
Working one-on-one to reduce waste during transportation really depends on a collaborative relationship larger suppliers may or may not buy into. “They have to be able and willing to go out of their way to reduce waste,” says Miller.
While there are health and safety considerations, as food and drug administration has strict guidelines on packaging, suppliers often take the simplest, most cost effective packaging route, rather than the most environmentally friendly.
“We will be offering dairy, reusable glass containers for milk, and down the road it would be ideal to have yogurt on tap,” she says. “Many products can be shipped differently than they usually are, and most small and local suppliers are willing to go out of the way to do it.”
Cost-wise, Miller is confident she can keep the store affordable, while still accounting for additional costs associated with the zero waste mandate such as buying in lower quantity and time and labour committed to sanitizing containers.
“We are trying to price products affordably to make the store as accessible as possible,” says Miller. “We are comparable to food of similar quality, and to local and organic products with inherently higher costs. There will be a tipping point where demand will make them cheaper.”
Miller’s is the only zero waste market in Canada, meaning there is no long- term data on diversion potential of this model; however, her nine pop-up shops have diverted approximately 2,500 containers over 56 hours.
Every link in the supply chain – store, distributor, and supplier – must agree on the process, which can get complicated. Buy-in from consumers is also a key factor.
The store will sell regular and so-called “ugly” produce and partner with local charities to donate extras. Miller is seeking large, open space suitable for moveable displays, a community area for demonstrations on composting, cooking, and other zero waste topics; and, one that will act as a community hub for local food and zero waste dialogue.
Miller hopes to open by the end of 2016. For more information please visit www.zerowastemarket.ca.