Winner of FCM’s 2022 Sustainable Communities Awards' waste category

Summary

Food waste is a contributor to climate change not only because of the associated unnecessary energy use, but because organic materials decomposing in landfill produce greenhouse gases. When food is discarded, it is a missed opportunity to redistribute that food to people who can eat or otherwise use it. In order to find the most impactful ways to reduce food waste, Guelph-Wellington conducted a study that examined the local food system from production to export and consumption. It found a number of solutions to the food waste problem that have the potential to both address economic inequality and reduce the community’s carbon footprint. 

Background

Guelph-Wellington encompasses the City of Guelph and Wellington Country. This region in southern Ontario has a population of about 223,000, almost 60 percent of whom live in the city. The county is largely rural with strong ties to food and agriculture. Predominant products include corn, wheat and soybeans as well as beef, swine and poultry. 

The community identified food waste as an opportunity to address both inequality and the climate crisis. A great deal of food waste is avoidable, meaning that with improved organization and distribution, the so-called waste could be saved for consumption. In addition, both avoidable (e.g., rotten fruit, stale bread) and unavoidable (e.g., egg shells, vegetable peels) food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions along the entire chain, from the resources used to produce discarded food to the methane created should organics end up in landfill. 

The challenge

Guelph-Wellington wanted to turn food waste into a valuable resource by creating a circular food economy in the region and reimagining how the community produces, distributes, sells and consumes food. The goal: to reduce the quantity of food sent to composting or disposal facilities in favour of either consuming it or using it for higher-value purposes.

In order to take on this challenge, Our Food Future was established. The group’s vision includes three pillars:

  • Increase access to affordable, nutritious food by 50 percent, where “waste” becomes a resource;
  • Create 50 new circular businesses and collaboration opportunities; and
  • Produce a 50 percent increase in circular economic benefit by unlocking the value of waste.

Approach

In order to achieve this vision, the team needed to better understand the local food landscape so that they could find opportunities to make positive change. With this in mind, Our Food Future launched a project that consisted of three stages:

  1. Gathering and analyzing data on food and food waste in the region.
  2. Engaging with local stakeholders to build a roadmap and identify the best specific interventions to undertake in order to find higher-value uses for food waste.
  3. Piloting three of these potential interventions.

A key factor in the project was engaging the expertise and insight of multiple partners — not just the city and the country but also subject matter experts, non-profits, private sector companies and governmental organizations, both in and outside the region — who had valuable perspectives to share. One way this group participated was in defining the ways success would be measured, including:

  • Value recovery of edible food,
  •  Total organic waste diverted,
  •  Reduction of environmental footprint, and
  •  Incremental economic value of outputs.

Barriers

Data collection and creating a standard data set was one of the major challenges in this project due to:

  •  The multiple sources needed,
  •  The absence of certain sets of data, and
  •  The time required to convert received data into standard units, to match food commodity categories and to analyze the quality of data to ensure a quality final output.

After the initial material flow analysis (MFA) was completed, the team purchased additional data sets for comparison and to verify results. They found that the more relevant of the two sets confirmed their initial analysis and concluded that freely available data is adequate for this kind of study, which is useful knowledge for other municipalities looking to replicate this project.

Another challenge was having to pivot from in-person to virtual engagement sessions, which was originally seen as a negative outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they were able to create useful and engaging virtual sessions by using digital collaboration platforms including Miro and Mural, which they found were a good way to collect a large amount of useful feedback efficiently. There have since been requests to continue with virtual sessions because many participants find them a more convenient way to participate. 

Results

Most importantly, the community gained a solid understanding of the food system in the region and of where waste occurs. They obtained an MFA in the form of a Sankey diagram, which is a visual representation of the flow of resources through the food system, including both production and consumption patterns. 

The data gathered shows the environmental impacts of consumption patterns, such as greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater withdrawals and land use per kilogram.

The team identified five “hotspots” where food waste is high-impact or causes a high loss of economic value. These included storage and packing areas of the supply chain as well as households, hotels and businesses. They then chose three of these hotspots as business cases to be piloted, based on three factors: feasibility, potential effectiveness and community enthusiasm.

Benefits

Thanks to this completed MFA and roadmap, the Guelph-Wellington community has discovered opportunities not only to decrease waste, but to increase access to affordable and nutritious food. The team is assessing potential projects on their economical and social impact as well as environmental. One proposed pilot project in particular will focus on how best to use food redirection platforms so that usable food can be rescued and consumed or upcycled rather than wasted.

Lessons learned

One major lesson learned from this project that it is immensely valuable to find effective ways to communicate complex data sets. The infographic the team created to illustrate the MFA has garnered “awe and excitement” from stakeholders for how clearly it depicts the local food system and potential solutions to waste. 

While it takes rigorous data collection and analysis and extra effort to produce this kind of graphic, the end result makes it easier for stakeholders to quickly understand the information being communicated and to identify priorities and work toward actionable change.

Next steps

The Our Food Future team is currently working with FCM on a proposal to launch the three interrelated pilot projects identified during the analysis:

  •  Expand Industrial, Commercial & Institutional (ICI) Food and Food Waste Collection;
  •  Enhance Existing Food and Food Waste Redirection Platforms; and
  •  Harness Energy Potential of Food Waste.

These include the food redirection project mentioned above as well as an investigation of how to turn unavoidable food waste into electricity through anaerobic digestion, with a potential reduction of up to 1,800 tons of CO2e annually. They are also creating a workbook for the sake of replicability, to help other communities perform similar analyses.

Quote

“By creating a more circular food system, we're strengthening our community, ensuring greater access to good nutrition and taking action to address the climate crisis.”

– David Messer, Executive Director, Smart Cities Office, City of Guelph

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