Multiple waste audits have indicated that the U of T community improperly discards organic products that could have been used or composted. Since these audits were released, students have stepped up to help direct food waste away from landfills.
One organization attempting to combat food waste on campus is MealCare Toronto. The club, started by U of T students Tamara Altarac and Ana Laura Noda González, redirects food waste to shelters and soup kitchens.
U of T’s food partnerships
In 2016, UTSG did not renew its contract with Aramark Corporation, a hospitality company known for catering to universities, retirement homes, and prisons. Following student feedback, Anne Macdonald, director of ancillary services at U of T, explained that the university wanted “to enhance the food offerings available to students on the St. George campus, particularly those who don’t live in residence.”
In 2022, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) lobbied to change UTM’s food provider from Chartwells to Aramark after experiencing issues with steep pricing and a lack of vegetarian options.
In 2015, according to Massachusetts program Recycling Works, an average college student generates 142 pounds of food waste a year. According to the Food Recovery Network, college campuses in the US threw out a total of 22 million pounds of uneaten food in 2012.
Across Canada, an estimated 2.3 million tonnes of edible food are thrown away annually. This poses an issue both for individuals, who must pay more for groceries as a result of food mismanagement, and for the planet.
Food requires sizable amounts of land, water, and other resources to manufacture, package, and ship for consumption; when food isn’t utilized effectively, more resources must be spent to feed the same number of people and more pollutants are released. In 2014, 95 per cent of food waste in the US ended up in landfills where it released methane, an incredibly potent greenhouse gas.
Food waste also represents a wasted opportunity. In 2020, around 5.8 million people across Canada, including students at U of T, experienced food insecurity. Redirecting food waste can help feed communities, reducing hunger.
Food waste on campus
The scale of food waste at U of T isn’t entirely clear. An environmental consulting service conducted a waste audit in October 2020 and estimated that 334 tonnes of organic matter that could have been composted went from the St. George campus to landfills that year. An additional 1,480 metric tonnes was composted.
Although composting reduces methane emissions from food waste, it is not the preferred method to handle excess food, as it doesn’t best utilize the resources used to grow the food.
Current levels of food waste are likely higher, because the audit was conducted during the early stages of the pandemic when few students lived on campus.
In 2018, UTSC conducted a waste audit over a one day period, which found that less than 20 per cent of all waste was diverted from landfills — far less than the diversion rate at UTSG. The audit report noted that, “Addressing organic waste management at the [UTSC] building would result in the largest contribution to improving waste diversion from landfill performance.” Almost 28 per cent of organic waste was incorrectly placed in the mixed recycling stream, and 58 per cent of the waste that ended up in landfills was organic material that could have been composted.
In 2018, a UTM waste audit found that all food service operations on the UTM campus had a collective waste diversion rate of 59 per cent. These statistics are similar at UTSG. However, the amount of organic matter wasted is unclear.
Initiatives to reduce food waste
Many constituencies are taking steps to reduce food waste or redirect it from landfills. There are legions of compost bins across all three campuses, which help food from landfills. UTSC has a compost program that uses worms to process food waste so it can be used as fertilizer in campus gardens.
UTM also has a number of initiatives to reduce food waste. In 2019, it redesigned its waste room to make what goes in each bin more clear. UTM also banned plastic straws and the sale of single use water bottles. UTM also sells used cooking oil so it can be recycled into biodiesel — a renewable, biodegradable fuel that reduces tailpipe emissions when used instead of petroleum.
MealCare is a nationwide nonprofit that redirects surplus food to shelters and soup kitchens and helps businesses track food waste to better manage production.
So far, the U of T chapter has donated 3,500 pounds of food, largely from orientations and other events. Groups and organizations can request to have MealCare donate excess food through its online form.
U of T and the University of Toronto Students’ Union have a contactless student food bank program that allows students who are experiencing food insecurity to receive boxes of produce. Starting at the end of this month, MealCare will begin diverting food from dining halls to the Student Union Food Bank.
The waste audits conducted at U of T recommend that the university do more to address food waste on campus. The 2018 audit for UTSC recommended that the campus standardize its bins, to make it clearer to students where to put their trash. The 2020 audit called on the UTSG to improve signage and continue to educate students and staff about composting.
MealCare is also looking to partner with more dining halls and divert the excess food they produce. Currently, MealCare Toronto only operates at UTSG, but they are “thinking about expanding to other campuses.”
Not all dining halls at UTSG are overseen by food services, and MealCare has had difficulty convincing these independent producers to get on board. “I’ve talked to a lot of people from colleges that are separate from [food services],” said Altarac. “They’ve been hesitant to allow us to do this.” Trinity College, one of U of T’s federated colleges, is still operating under Chartwells, a foodservice company similar to Aramark.
According to Altarac, there is also a place for more education and research, which MealCare is embarking on. “We’re launching a few different research projects… to look into both the food waste side and food insecurity side, so we can get some more specific data and numbers and… find out more concrete ways that we can help.”