Sci­en­tists au­dit garbage to as­sess house­hold food waste

The Prince George Citizen - - News - Bob WE­BER

Sci­en­tists spent weeks up to their el­bows in cof­fee grounds and ba­nana peels to come up with what they say is the most ac­cu­rate mea­sure yet of how much food is wasted in Cana­dian kitchens.

“To be hon­est, it’s not some­thing you’d want to do for­ever,” said Michael von Mas­sow, a food econ­o­mist at the Uni­ver­sity of Guelph.

Food waste has be­come an in­creas­ingly hot re­search topic in re­cent years.

Pre­vi­ous ef­forts have re­lied on in­dus­try data or house­hold self-re­port­ing to as­sess how much un­eaten food goes in the garbage. But peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate how much they chuck and in­dus­try fig­ures pro­vide lit­tle de­tail on in­di­vid­ual homes.

The only way, von Mas­sow thought, was to get down and dirty.

He and his re­search col­leagues worked with 94 house­holds in Guelph, Ont.. The sci­en­tists took out the trash, went through re­cy­cling, or­ganic waste and com­post­ing, sep­a­rated mushy as­para­gus from du­bi­ous rice and weighed it all out over the course of sev­eral weeks.

“Rub­ber gloves,” von Mas­sow laughs. “It’s not as bad as you might think.”

Items com­monly dumped down the sink, such as ex­pired milk or mouldy yo­gurt, weren’t mea­sured.

The de­tailed, teabag-by-ap­plecore ap­proach al­lowed von Mas­sow to pre­cisely mea­sure just how much was thrown out and whether it was once ed­i­ble. That was cru­cial for de­ter­min­ing the value of what got tossed.

“If you have a T-bone steak and you throw that bone out, putting a value on that bone of what­ever you paid for the steak seems in­ac­cu­rate,” von Mas­sow said.

Waste from the fam­i­lies, all of whom had young chil­dren, var­ied widely. Some threw out up to eight kilo­grams of once-ed­i­ble food a week, some barely one-six­teenth of that. The me­dian fig­ure was 2 1/2 kilo­grams.

That rep­re­sents enough calo­ries to have an adult over for din­ner five nights a week with­out adding a dime to the gro­cery bill.

The value of that food was about $18. Pro­duc­ing and dis­pos­ing of it gen­er­ated about 23 kilo­grams of green­house gases.

Bread, toma­toes and ap­ples were the top three items. Chicken was the most fre­quent meat.

Von Mas­sow’s fig­ures are lower than those ar­rived at in some pre­vi­ous re­search. A 2017 study es­ti­mated the amount of avoid­able food waste in Canada at 2.7 kilo­grams per house­hold.

Von Mas­sow at­tributes that to his ex­clu­sion of non-ed­i­ble waste. Go­ing through the garbage was re­veal­ing, he said. Peo­ple know the plas­tic wrap around that yucky cu­cum­ber should go in the re­cy­cling, but they toss it in the trash any­way.

“Peo­ple hide things that they feel guilty about. I saw peo­ple hide bat­ter­ies in a Pringles tube. They know they’re do­ing some­thing they shouldn’t and I think the same thing hap­pens with avoid­able food waste.”

Von Mas­sow ac­knowl­edges that his sam­ple size is small and, to some ex­tent, self-se­lect­ing. But he main­tains his re­sults are, if not sta­tis­ti­cally bul­let­proof, at least rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

The point of the re­search, he said, is to even­tu­ally un­der­stand what works best to per­suade peo­ple to cut down on food waste. For some, it’s an eth­i­cal is­sue. For oth­ers, it’s eco­nomic and for still oth­ers it’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lem.

For von Mas­sow, spend­ing weeks pick­ing through garbage has al­ready had one ef­fect.

“We have not au­dited my house yet, but it sure makes me more cog­nizant of when I’m putting some­thing into the garbage.”

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