Last week, FoodCycler presented a webinar about one of the greatest challenges faced by municipalities across Canada as they seek to lower their carbon footprint and reduce waste management costs: food waste.
FoodCycler Director of Strategy, Alex Hayman led the webinar which focused on municipalities in British Columbia. The webinar was well-attended, with approximately 20 participants from across BC.
We'd like to use this article as a summary of what we went over, and as an introduction to our solution to municipal food waste.
What's the problem?
To put it simply: food waste.
2.2 million tonnes of food is wasted every year in Canada - or 40% of all food produced domestically
Food waste rotting away in landfills is an environmental and infrastructural nightmare. When food waste is collected by the City alongside other refuse in general garbage collection, it is then sent to a landfill, where it decomposes in an anaerobic (no air) environment.
Canadian municipalities are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that food waste is no small player in local environmental and infrastructural challenges.
Food Waste In Landfills Is Terrible for the Environment
Food waste which decomposes anaerobically (like it does in landfills) generates methane gas (CH4), a greenhouse gas at least 20 times worse for the environment than the CO2 from our cars. Food waste in landfills also generates leachate, which can be extremely dangerous for those living in close proximity to a landfill, or to a water table affected by its leakage.
Food Waste In Landfills Is Expensive
Food waste costs Canadians in excess of $17 billion annually
Landfills are, needless to say, costing you and your local government a lot of money!
Millions of dollars go into constructing and maintaining a landfill over its lifetime. Further, a municipality can anticipate spending well over $100 for every ton of waste once collection costs, transfer station fees, and tipping fees are accounted for. Considering that a single household can waste up to a quarter ton of food waste per year, this amount quickly adds up.
These costs are passed on to local taxpayers either directly in the form of utility-style waste management fees, or as part of general taxation.
Of this waste, food waste accounts for up to 50% of the weight of residential waste in municipalities which do not have an organics collection system. Not only is food waste plentiful in Canadian trash, it is also one of the heaviest components of residential and commercial waste, given that food waste is composed of up to 90% water.
In Canada’s largest City, Toronto, the prices vary from $270-$516 dollars per year depending on your bin size. Charges are based on how much waste your household is producing. This utility model offers good incentives for diverting as much as possible since organics and recycling are unlimited streams.
Consumer Food Waste Attracts Pests - and STINKS!
In our conversations with residents across Canada – from coast to coast to coast, one of the first things mentioned is the pest problem associated with rotting garbage.
Fruit flies, regular flies, maggots, raccoons, skunks, crows, ravens, seagulls, coyotes, fishers - and most worryingly for those Canadians in more rural areas - bears.
While pest-proof compost and garbage bins exist, they're usually quite expensive, and do nothing to mitigate the wastage of food itself. Wouldn’t it be easier to remove the food waste in the first place rather than investing in expensive animal deterrents?
Not only are pests a problem, but the smells which attract them aren't exactly pleasant either. As most people who wheel out their garbage weekly can attest: garbage filled with food waste can sometimes smell very, very bad. For those living within a few kilometres of a waste processing facility or landfill, these smells are a constant irritant - strongest during the spring thaw.
Whose problem is it anyways?
The majority of food waste in Canada is generated post-consumer (after we purchase food at the supermarket and take it home). However, the food waste created by consumers does not stay within the home: it's almost always handed off to the municipality through regular curbside collection. It's almost too convenient, we put all the waste we want at the curb and it gets taken "away" - out of sight and out of mid.
47% of food waste is accountable to consumers, with the remaining 53% wasted along the entire food chain
Something which characterizes Canadian waste streams is that the onus for collection and redistribution of waste is almost always on local government. Whether it's weekly garbage collection - of which food waste represents a sizeable portion - or city-wide organics collection, the responsibility to collect, divert, and process food waste falls to municipalities.
Little has been done so far to actually curb the generation of food waste at the residential level. Rather, post-consumer solutions such as curbside collection (green bin programs) have been implemented in certain Canadian cities to divert existing waste from landfills where, as we've seen, it can collect and cause a host of environmental and infrastructural problems.
FoodCycler's position is that municipalities should be focussing not just on separating waste and hauling it to new places – but reducing waste in the first place and dealing with as much as possible on-site. As more and more products are offered with compostable packaging, there will be new opportunities for on-site diversion and reduced hauling of garbage / recycling.
63% of food waste is avoidable
How, then, do we divert more waste on-site?
What solutions are available and why aren't they enough?
So, we know the problem now. But what are we doing to solve it?
Backyard Composting Systems
Some people prefer to process their waste at home, and choose to start a compost pile on their property. Composting is a fantastic method for eliminating some household organic and paper wastes, and can also generate a rich fertilizer for your garden.
The reason residential composting systems aren't a viable option for some City-wide rollout resides primarily in the fact that not every person has the space, time or mobility to compost on their own. Multi-unit buildings often lack the outdoor or even the indoor space to recycle food waste aerobically; older populations may have mobility restrictions which do not allow them to turn a compost pile or tumbler. Even with a backyard and the physical ability required, there is still a lack of know-how and/or lack of time to maintain a compost pile regularly.
Many residents prefer to compost only during the warmer parts of the year which is a great start but means food waste still goes into the garbage during the cold winter months. We’ve heard from some of our customers that using a FoodCycler allows them to keep diverting their food waste all winter while collecting a valuable soil amendment to get their compost bin or garden started in the spring.
Some Canadian municipalities have long incentivized backyard composters to lessen the pressure put on waste collection and processing infrastructure. While some of these programs have had success, adoption rates tend to stagnate after a certain period of time. In fact, we often hear stories of composters ending up in landfill not long after these programs are implemented.
Green Bin Programs
Organics collections programs are a fairly well established method of solving the food waste problem. Residents receive a green bin, free of charge (apart from increased taxation) and fill it up throughout the week with various permitted wastes (soiled paper products, food waste, etc). Some programs include yard waste in this list, but not all.
Weekly or bi-weekly collection transports the binned organics to a processing centre or compost facility.
Green Bin programs, such as the one implemented by Canada's capital in 2010, are the preferred method of organics recycling for larger cities where dense housing and large processing facilities generate economies of scale. While adoption rates are high in single-family homes, adoption challenges remain in the multi-residential sector.
However, some municipalities are struggling to find uses for compost since it can be contaminated with plastics and other materials. Further, there is little information available which measure the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from curbside pickup (trucks emitting CO2) and those emitted during processing.
Similarly to the problems faced by backyard compost piles, green bins are at risk of attracting unwanted visitors, and emitting certain unappealing odours.
As we've seen, landfills are a short-term solution which can quickly cause more problems than they solve. While sending food waste and other detritus to landfill is the easiest solution (usually requiring no more action from consumers save the energy required to throw something away) it is also the most environmentally damaging and the least sustainable option - both environmentally and logistically.
Landfilled food waste decomposes anaerobically, generating a potent greenhouse gas. As we evolve toward more sustainable practices, and as we grow to model more circular economies, landfills will no longer be a viable form of waste management. We are quickly learning that "traditional" methods of dealing with waste (landfills) are no longer an option; waste does not just "go away" - it has to go somewhere.
FoodCycler provides municipalities with an alternative to traditional green bin programs and composting programs that can be more cost-effective and achieve better performance. A fully FoodCycler program not only reduces the cost burden and infrastructural requirements for the municipality, but also helps drive consumer awareness around the amounts of food waste they are generating. Since diversion takes place 100% in the home, it's a quick and easy program to implement and requires minimal long-term management from staff.
What Is the FoodCycler?
The FoodCycler is a compact electric food recycler - sometimes referred to as an "electric composter". Users add food waste to the unit and, when the internal bucket is full, they press Start to commence the cycle. The unit then moves into the Grinding phase, where food waste is pulverized and aerated. The Drying cycle dehydrates the pulverized material, and continues aeration. The Cooling cycle ends the process by making the final product safe to handle.
Unlike traditional compost, FoodCycler can be functional year-round regardless of climate. The by-product produced is sterile, odourless and reduced to a tenth of its original volume. It can be stored for up to a year in closed or open-air conditions.
Though the end-product cannot be qualified as compost due to strict definitions, it still contains vital nutrients and biomatter which nourishes the soil. Acting as a soil amendment (or fertilizer), the FoodCycler by-product is a powerful natural alternative to synthetic fertilizers.
Much like backyard compost bins, this compact food recycler uses heat and aeration to break down food waste. The resulting biomatter is a dry, odourless fertilizer which can be incorporated into homeowner or community gardens, or even collected through a curbside program.
So what's the benefit of using FoodCycler rather than a green bin program, or simply sending food waste to landfill?
Up to 50% of residential waste is composed of food waste and other organics in municipalities without dedicated organics' collection services. Water-logged food waste is also extremely heavy, which makes it more greenhouse gas intensive to transport to landfill.
Using the FoodCycler means that a significant component of the waste stream is diverted at the source and never ends up in the landfill. We've seen that most residents use the soil amendment on-site for gardening and other applications, but even if some does up in the landfill - it will take up roughly 90% less space and produce roughly 90% less emissions during transport. There will also be a 90% reduction in tip fees for that waste!
Our analysis shows that municipalities that subsidize the FoodCycler for residents can achieve a payback period of as little as 1-2 years depending on the subsidy rate and tipping fees in there area. Municipalities that own their landfills can still benefit financially through extended landfill lifespan. FoodCycler programs can also work in communities of any size since no new infrastructure is required - whether you have 100 households in your community or 100,000 the economics of FoodCycler stay roughly the same.
Even when there is a central compost site or anaerobic digester available, there are many benefits to "pre-treating" food waste before it's transported to those sites.
Unlike landfill anaerobic conditions, food waste processed in the FoodCycler does not generate methane at all. This means that processed food waste does not contribute any greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at all. Once soil amendment is incorporated into soil, a final off-gassing occurs which results in a negligible amount of GHGs since the conditions are aerobic.
By processing their waste at home, consumers are also lowering the transportation emissions associated with trucking organic waste. If the municipality does not collect organics specifically, homeowners are still lowering trash transportation emissions to landfill by up to 50%, given that their waste is now missing that heavy mass and large volume of water-logged organics. It also won’t stink, so garbage could be collected less frequently – another cost and greenhouse gas saving.
For those homeowners who keep gardens on their property, adding the FoodCycler by-product incorporates huge amounts of organic matter into the affected soil. This natural fertilizer is a great alternative to commercial available bagged compost.
By promoting the health of the soil with homemade fertilizer, gardeners are also promoting the soil conditions needed to absorb CO2 from the earth's atmosphere.
Although the Foodcycler is an electronic device that needs to be manufactured and consumes electricity - the savings from diversion vastly outweigh the costs. This is particularly true in provinces like BC where the grid is extremely clean due to an abundance of hydropower. In a province such as Ontario which has a slightly higher grid carbon intensity, the lifecycle GHG impact of a FoodCycler is similar to running a backyard composter or taking food waste to a central compost facility. Note that his comparison is based on composting that follows best practices and does not include the transportation emissions of central compost.
Great idea... but does it work in the real world?
FoodCycler partnered in 2020 with the City of Nelson located in British Columbia. Over the course of two Pilots, a select number of residents used the FoodCycler to divert their household food waste. The first Pilot focused on residents who opted-in to use the FoodCycler on a trial basis, while the second Pilot measured was based randomly selected households.
It was discovered that on average of 6-8kg of food waste was diverted per household, per week with the use of FoodCycler, significantly higher than traditional curbside programs. We believe this is due to the fact that FoodCycler is so easy to use and has no “yuck” factor associated with it.
The participants of the first Pilot (opt-in volunteers) gave the FoodCycler a global rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars. The participants of the second Pilot (randomly selected participants) gave the FoodCycler 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Following unanimous Council approval, plans are now in motion to seek provincial funding which will support the City’s plan to roll-out an innovative Organics pre-treatment model to every household. The City of Nelson has a track record of innovation and being one of Canada’s greenest cities – this project is further evidence of their environmental leadership.
Stay tuned for a future blog post on pre-treatment and how it combines the benefits of a traditional curbside program with the increased performance and user experience of a FoodCycler.