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Taking a bite out of food waste reduces emissions and saves households money

Embodied in Canadian-sourced food consumption and disposal are 58 megatonnes of carbon emissions annually. Addressing food waste can reduce those emissions by more than six megatonnes, and also reduce household costs.

What’s new?

There are 58 megatonnes of carbon emissions embodied in Canadian-sourced food purchases made by households (48.7 megatonnes) and in restaurants and food services (9.6 megatonnes). To put this into perspective, carbon emissions embodied in domestically sourced food purchases of all types are about equal to the combined emissions from Canada’s petroleum refining, cement and concrete, iron and steel, and chemical sectors. 

As Canada drives to net zero, the emissions from Canadian-sourced food will need to be managed. A good place to start is reducing the substantial amount of food waste produced by households, restaurants, and food services. This could cut more than six megatonnes of emissions, lower household costs, and reduce water pollution and biodiversity loss.

Figure 1: There are 58 megatonnes of embodied emissions in the consumption of food. More than six megatonnes of emissions can be avoided by reducing food waste.

Emissions from food waste are not just scraps

In 2020, food waste discarded with municipal solid waste across Canada was about 6.4 million tonnes or roughly 20 per cent of all food consumed, whether at home or purchased elsewhere. Of this discarded food, about 40 per cent could have been consumed while the rest is unavoidable loss in the form of table and kitchen scraps (Van Bemmel and Parizeau 2020). This avoidable food waste costs an eye-popping $12.8 billion annually. The economic cost also has an emissions cost, with two major sources of embodied emissions in avoidable food waste:

  1. Emissions from the production and transportation of food, or Scope 3 emissions, are embodied in the food we consume. To estimate the avoidable emissions embodied in food waste, we need to calculate the quantity of avoidable food and the carbon intensity of that wasted food. We estimate the quantity of avoidable food waste for a family of four to be 326 kg per year, assuming 40 per cent of all food destined for landfills is avoidable. This avoidable waste represents a cost of $940 for a family of four. Using the 440 Megatonnes Canadian Carbon Intensity Database, and adjusting the carbon intensity for household food downward 25 per cent to avoid double counting emissions in supply chains, we estimate the Scope 3 emissions in avoidable food waste to be 470 kgCO2e per family per year.  
  2. Food waste that ends up in landfills creates greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane. We use the Canadian Carbon Intensity Database to trace upstream emissions and the reported National Inventory Report emissions associated with solid waste disposal to calculate food disposal emissions. We estimate landfill emissions from household food waste to be 172 kgCO2e per person per year. If 40 per cent of food waste is avoidable, the embodied emissions of that waste are equal to 276 kgCO2e per family of four.

The total embodied emissions from all food waste for a family of four are 746 kgCO2e per year. Across all people in Canada, the total emissions from avoidable food waste is upwards of six megatonnes per year.  

Governments need to tackle food waste and more

As food waste emissions are so high, they should be a priority for all orders of governments as they consider how to reduce emissions to 440 megatonnes by 2030 and net zero beyond. When other environmental benefits are factored in, such as biodiversity loss and water pollution, as well as the potential cost savings for households, the policy case to move on food waste becomes supercharged. 

Although addressing household food waste is a good place to start in reducing emissions from Canadian-sourced food, there is still more to be done. For example, strengthening landfill methane regulations and providing capital to cash strapped municipalities to invest in waste-to-energy projects would go a long way to reduce end-of-life disposal costs from all food waste. In addition, to create incentives for addressing upstream emissions in food production, the fuel charge exemption for on-farm liquid fuel should end. Stay tuned for our upcoming insights on how Canada can take a bigger bite out of the emissions being produced by Canadian-sourced food.  

Seton Stiebert is an advisor to 440 Megatonnes and the Principal of Stiebert Consulting. Dave Sawyer is the Principal Economist for the Canadian Climate Institute.