I regularly walk past a panhandling man on my way to lunch. Exposing my own biases, he seems a little too well-dressed to ask for money, and with the embarrassment of my own ignorance, I shuffle by. It makes me think of the not so invisible divide between the materially secure and insecure and that may be if we tread too close to that line.
The thing is that we live in a prosperous, materially dense country, where in most respects there is enough for everyone. We just don’t always distribute equitably. Take food for instance. There has been much said lately about the amount of food that becomes waste and its monetary, environmental and social impacts.
Food that should have been eaten ends up in our landfills, composting and anaerobic digestion facilities, but there are leaders for us on this issue. Take the recent Middlesex London Food Policy Council’s Beyond Waste forum event, which brought together potential food retail and food service donors with recipient organizations. I was impressed at the level of effort by organizations such as Ontario’s London Convention Centre and Western University’s Hospitality Services, which already donate much of their surplus food to local agencies. This consists largely of extra meals made during large events. They have managed to work out a symbiotic relationship with various donor agencies that happily receive this food. Grocery stores in London, Ont., are also starting to join. For instance, at least eight of them have been working with the London Food Bank to deliver perishable food, so much so that up to 40% of it is fresh.
If we put this problem through the grist mill of the circular economy, we can partially, if not wholly, excise what is now a waste management issue by tackling food supply chain inefficiency. At its heart, this is what the circular economy is about. We need upstream thinking where we consider the waste implications along each step of the food supply chain.
We need to provide the right economic signals to ultimately spur investment and stimulate creativity in how to more fully deal with food and organic waste. That is the circular economy. Mechanisms such as organic restrictions or bans, disposal levies and source separation requirements can all achieve this signal. So how would this work in the real world?
At the retail-consumer interface, where we as householders purchase the food that we eat (or don’t), this means a clearer strategy of what to do with the food that retailers either do not want or cannot sell.
Methods need to evolve in the way we initially saw food waste disposed and sent to landfill, which changed to composting or anaerobic digestion. Businesses have formed around these waste management methods. The circular economy means upstream thinking and considering what to do with waste long before it needs to be considered waste. The same retail know-how that allows food retailers to source their food can help them to inventory and ship their surplus food onwards to those that can use it.
A ban on food to landfill forces this upstream thinking. It is clear that avenues for this food have been created by the early adopters. Putting a hard stop to putting avoidable food in the garbage (or the green bin for that matter) will put everyone else on the road to ensuring the better and more equitable distribution of our food.
I walked by the panhandling man again, but this time looked him in the eye, asked him his name and put some change in his jar. I have enough. He doesn’t. It shouldn’t be that complicated.
For more than 25 years Paul van der Werf has been managing food waste options. He is president of 2cg Inc.