Solid Waste & Recycling


Food for Naught

Ascribing responsibility for recyclables such as newspapers and beverage containers as well as other products appears relatively straightforward, but it's not as easy when it comes to a rotting piece ...

Ascribing responsibility for recyclables such as newspapers and beverage containers as well as other products appears relatively straightforward, but it’s not as easy when it comes to a rotting piece of tomato.

The issue of stewardship for organic waste from food is a challenging one to tackle. While yard waste is produced at the household and managed by the municipality and non-recyclable paper wastes can be included in the general discussion of stewardship of paper wastes, stewardship of residential food wastes is a lot more complex. (See Figures 1 and 2.)

Consumer food waste

Consumers are the last port of call for the product produced in the farmer’s field. They are also largely the default stewards. In some jurisdictions there is a move on to ban if not significantly reduce the amount of residential organic wastes going to landfill. Municipalities that have opted to provide food waste composting services have done so via the tax base and in some cases with assistance from some other level of government.

The Province of Nova Scotia has banned organic wastes, including food wastes, from its landfill since 1988. To date 75 per cent of residents have access to the collection and composting of organic wastes. Municipalities, in conjunction with the province, cover the cost.

As Bob Kenney, solid waste-resource analyst with the Nova Scotia Department of the Environment and Labour points out, “Stewardship for food waste has rarely been raised by any stakeholders in Nova Scotia. Other products and packaging are much higher on our list of priorities such as plastics and other products that are difficult to recycle. We are also sensitive to social issues surrounding the potential increase in the cost of basic food necessities.”

In Nova Scotia the stewards appear to be the householder, municipality and the province.

Clearly the purchasers and consumers of food bear considerable responsibility for the management of its wastes. As Figure 1 points out, they need not bear exclusive responsibility to manage food wastes if they are removed from the disposal stream and slotted into a diversion stream. This typically entails a higher cost.

“The alternate management of food and other organic wastes should not be dependent on subsidies or a cash grab,” says Susan Antler, executive director of The Composting Council of Canada says. “Rather, there is now considerable latitude to work with potential stewards to develop voluntary and facilitative relationships.” (See article, page 23.)


Retailers can be split into two simple categories: grocery stores and restaurants (including all types of eat-in or take-out outlets where food is sold).

The costs to manage food wastes that have spoiled at a grocery store are included in the purchase price. When you go to a restaurant you purchase and consume whatever you wish. The cost of waste disposal is included in the purchase price. But retailers arguably bear no responsibility for waste management when those food products are brought home, and later to some varying proportion disposed.

To properly gauge this level of responsibility one would require knowledge of the percentage of food waste purchased that gets wasted by the consumer at home. Finding the answer would include undertaking some type of mass balance calculations of the generation of food waste in household waste and total food sold.

Retailers act as brokers of the products they sell. They have had no hand in growing them or processing them. It would seem that over and above their own wastes (spoilage, etc.) that they would have a limited responsibility for the management of food wastes produced at the household level.

Figure 2 ascribes some responsibilities to retailers to contribute to the payment to manage these organic wastes. It seems inconceivable that they would pay directly to develop infrastructure to divert food wastes although some “kick-start” funding would be helpful. They could play a significant facilitative role by utilizing this infrastructure to manage at a fair market value their own food wastes.

Food processors

Processing can include freezing or canning fresh food to manufacturing food products. Similar to the retailers’ assistance in determining stewardship responsibilities, data needs to be collected to determine the percentage of processed food that is wasted at the household level.

Figure 2 ascribes some responsibilities to food processors to contribute to the management of these organic wastes.

An argument could be made that food processors already contribute considerably to the reduction of food wastes. The decomposition clock does not start ticking until the package is opened. The consumer has a lot of control over the amount of spoilage — weeks and months as opposed to days for fresh produce. That amount of control places more of the responsibility to manage food wastes generated onto the shoulders of the consumer.

It is suggested that food processors could play a similar role as the retailers. However, it would be challenging to incorporate imported processed foods into this model.

Ms. Antler points out that even though stewardship of organics has not been on the radar screen, various firms, food processors and retailers such as Proctor & Gamble, Loblaws, Provigo and the Canadian Restaurant and Food Association (CRFA) have come to the fore to voluntarily assist the composting industry.

Hopefully the continued development of a stewardship role for the retail and food processing sectors will focus on a “let’s work together” basis rather than on an adversarial “we want you to pay” basis.

Agriculture industry

The agricultural sector should bear a considerable amount of responsibility to manage food wastes. Agricultural production can be split into the production of plant and animal products. The consumer more typically produces food wastes of plant origin (e.g. produce, bread, etc.) but does also produce food wastes of animal origin (e.g. milk, meat). Food wastes of animal origin will contain plant materials (e.g. a cow is fed grain).

The production of plant products can reduce organic matter from the soil, whether through its removal during harvest or due to erosion. Many positive steps have been taken by the agricultural community to reduce this problem.

The agricultural sector stewardship can represent a true closed-loop system in that wastes from what was removed from land should be re-introduced to that land. But by society’s design and apparent laziness the agricultural sector has been disconnected from much of the wastes generated from its harvests. It has been convenient to put these wastes in a final disposal location. In some scenarios, that may be fine. However, if as a society we choose to remove those wastes from that disposal stream then we need to reconnect the agricultural sector to those wastes. This is depicted in Figure 2.

It’s not suggested that the agricultural sector pay for the development of the composting infrastructure. However it should arguably play a significant role in the purchase and use of products, such as compost, produced from diversion activities. If a society is compelled to divert its organic waste and divert it to composting or other means, then the sector that produced the progenitors of this waste should be involved.

The agricultural sector will have to be willing or compelled to pay fair market value to purchase and apply this product to their lands. Theoretically agricultural land is the best place for compost. In reality this notion has not come to fruition. Typically this is because the farmer is not willing to pay for this product. In some cases this may be due to inferior products. In other cases it is because they are not willing to appreciate the benefits that are there.

The question of imported agricultural goods also arises. Should domestic farmers accept composts produced from these wastes? Logic would reply with a bellowing “no” although developing a mass balance calculation that determines potential organic matter loss from agricultural lan
d as
a function of domestic and exported agricultural production is compelling. For now they are included in the model as contributing to the development of infrastructure.

Ultimately, consumers should continue to pay at a level that matches their present waste disposal costs. The retail and food processing sectors should contribute to the development of infrastructure by playing some sort of “kick-starting” and facilitative role. Finally the agricultural sector needs to play a significant role and close the loop by accepting and paying for high quality byproducts from the waste diversion process through composting or other means.

Paul van der Werf owns and operates composting and waste management consultancy 2cg, based in London, Ontario. To contact Paul, visit

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