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On January 1, 2015, the City of Vancouver and Metro Vancouver regional district banned food scraps in garbage.

Katherine White, Sauder’s Professor in Consumer Insights, Prosocial Consumption, and Sustainability, talks about why it was done and what challenges businesses may face in adhering to the ban. 

Why is this ban in place?

What a lot of people don’t realize is that it can be highly problematic when food waste gets put into the landfill. When a naturally compostable product, such as food waste, is put in garbage bags, this cuts it off from oxygen. Then this gets covered with other material. Under these types of conditions, when there’s no oxygen to allow the food products to decompose naturally, a lot of negative things happen. Methane gas is released and there’s a lot of runoff and other negative environmental consequences. Methane is one of the worst greenhouse gases in terms of adverse effects on climate change, so it’s much better allow food to compost naturally; food scraps that would normally take a season or two to decompose take far longer in a landfill. The City of Vancouver says that 40 per cent of garbage in its landfill is food scraps, so it’s a significant problem.

The city will up the stakes of the ban in July by introducing fines — how might those fines affect compliance?

It’ll be interesting to see to what extent and in what way they’re really going to be enforcing the fines. Some studies suggest fines work well but there’s other research that suggests fines can lead to unexpected outcomes. One such study looked at daycares: parents were picking their kids up later and later and eventually the daycare worked with researchers to implement a fine for late child pickup. What they found was that, instead of it being a deterrent, parents thought ‘Great, now it’s okay to come late because I can just pay,’ so we don’t want food waste fines to become perceived as being a paid waste removal service. It’s important if there’s some kind of fine or penalty being employed that the right perceptions are being created because this could lead to the opposite of the intended behaviour. I doubt the city will fine everyday residents; it is more likely that this will be reserved for extreme or blatant offenders. It seems more likely that the City of Vancouver will use the notion of the fines as a tool to inform people about the process and its importance.

What’s are the challenges for residents?

Most Vancouver residents have some sort of green bin already, so it’s not too problematic for residents in single family dwellings. It’s a bigger problem in apartments and condos; strata owners have been complaining that it’s difficult to get everyone to comply since there’s no individual accountability and people can throw whatever they please into the garbage.

What’s the effect on businesses?

For a lot of businesses I think it’ll mean changing some of their operations: if it’s a business where there’s food waste being created this may require changing the behaviours of employees so food products are being sorted earlier, during the kitchen prep, rather than later, after the usual work is done. It may mean some employee training on new procedures and reinforcing changes in behaviour.

What are some of the challenges for business to implementing this?

For these types of behaviours it’s usually centered on convenience. If you’re an employee and the required behaviour change is making your normal process or routine more difficult, and it is intervening with the ease of doing your job you’re not likely to do it. The other factor is a lack of understanding and education as to what can go in and what can’t, which is an issue with recycling as well.

How can businesses overcome the challenges?

Training and education are two methods, but there are other ways to ensure you have less food waste overall. One important thing to highlight is that it would be much better to have less food waste in the first place. Businesses can strive to optimize their ordering and operations, so that they are using most of these products rather than needing to dispose of them. Another innovative option is to donate leftovers to charities so that you end up without as much to put in the green bin at the end of the day. COBS bread does this: their policy is fresh bread daily for their customers, and any leftovers at the end of the day get donated to charitable causes.