By Joshua Chong
Tammara Soma, co-founder and director of research of the Food Systems Lab, says a payment-based system is a useful tool to reduce avoidable food waste.
It’s a stinking statistic: the average Toronto household wastes more than 100 kilograms of edible food each year. That amounts to more than $1,000 in avoidable food waste costs tossed down the organics bin annually.
Canada is one of the worst culprits in terms of food wastage. According to a 2021 UN report, Canadians throw away more food than the average person from the U.S., U.K. or Japan.
South Korea once faced similar challenges. But in 2013, the country introduced a “pay-as-you-throw” food waste program. Residents are charged based on how much organic matter they throw away.
For some, particularly those in apartment complexes, all they have to do is tap an ID card and place their scraps into an automated organics receptacle that weighs the waste. At the end of the month, they are charged for the amount of organics — edible and unedible — they threw out. The average household pays about $8 a month.
The program has been largely successful at changing the country’s waste disposal habits. Since 2013, when the disposal fee program was introduced, food waste in Seoul has decreased by 30 per cent, according to city officials. Could a similar program curb Toronto’s food wastage woes?
Simon Fraser University assistant professor Tammara Soma, who is the co-founder and director of research of the Food Systems Lab — which seeks to examine solutions that create more sustainable food systems — says that a payment-based program is a useful tool to curb avoidable food waste.
“The Korean model has been heralded as a best practice for a long time,” said Soma. “It’s an efficient system if it is done properly.”
However, she notes such a program could bring unintended consequences. A fee-based system could lead to illegal dumping if it is only introduced on a municipal level in certain jurisdictions, she says.
“Human are humans,” said Soma. “There’s the potential for people to say, ‘What’s going to stop me from throwing my garbage elsewhere?’”
She said that issue can be mitigated if the program is introduced provincially or nationally, and is paired with the necessary infrastructure to ensure such a system would succeed.
“There needs to be more standardization, harmonization and education (here),” she explained. “Some apartment buildings, for example, have really good signage and a disposal local that is centralized, while others don’t. In South Korea, the infrastructure around waste is more even.”
Walter Foreman, a Canadian who lived in South Korea from 1998 to 2019, highlighted the extensive waste system at the apartment complex where he lived.
“There would be a whole area dedicated to waste and recycling,” he said. “And recycling would be separated into can, Polyethylene bottles, PET bottles, and other different types of recycling.”
Emily Alfred, a waste campaigner with Toronto Environmental Alliance, said that if a fee-based disposal system is implemented, there must be checks in place to ensure residents don’t dump food waste into the garbage.
South Korea already had a volume-based waste fee system (like Toronto’s garbage system) in place prior to introducing a pay-as-you-throw system for food waste. And in 2005, the country made it illegal to send food scraps to landfills. These existing systems prevented residents from throwing their food scraps in the garbage once the new program was rolled out.
By 2019, 95 per cent of food waste was recycled as fertilizer or biogas, up from two per cent in 1995, according to the World Economic Forum. (By contrast, 60 per cent of organics in Ontario ended up in a landfill in 2015, according to the province.)
In 2017, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals introduced a Food and Organic Waste Framework that committed to ban food and organic waste from ending up in disposal sites starting in 2022 — similar to South Korea’s 2005 policy. At the time, the report suggested enforcement mechanism such as inspections and administrative penalties to ensure compliance — particularly for the biggest food waste contributors, such as restaurants.
Gary Wheeler, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, said the current Progressive Conservative provincial government “continues to consider options and identify a path forward,” but is committed to phasing-out organic waste from landfill by 2030.
For Alfred, a ban preventing food waste from ending up in landfills may have a greater impact than an organics disposal fee.
She notes that many industrial businesses, restaurants and multi-unit residential buildings do not use the city’s waste disposal system, and as such, may not sort waste. She says only provincial legislation would ensure food waste is diverted from landfills.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re sending organics to landfill when we could be composting them into valuable nutrients and preventing greenhouse gas emissions, like methane,” she said.
“Diverting this food waste is very important for reaching our climate goals.”