Sustainable Food Systems and Food Security

Graduate Student Paper

Food Waste, Diversion & Closed-Loop Composting on Campus at KPU

Kelsey Watson and Julia Bendtsen
SFSS 6110 - Environment and Food Systems (Instructor: Michael Bomford)
December 2021


Food waste is an often-overlooked aspect of the food system, despite being significant. Food waste or loss is defined as the “physical mass of food produced for human consumption [...] lost and wasted throughout the food supply chain” (Gustavsson et al., 2011). The UNEP Food Waste Index sheds light on the scope of food waste globally, estimating that 931 million tonnes of food, equivalent to 17 percent of the food available, was wasted in 2019 (UN Environment Programme, 2021). To put this into perspective, the weight of this waste is roughly equivalent to “that of 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks — bumper-to-bumper, enough to circle the Earth 7 times” (UN Environment Programme, 2021). In broad terms, food waste represents a waste of “resources, [...] land, water, energy and inputs” and the sub-sequential CO2 emissions (Gustavsson et al., 2011). When food waste ends up in a landfill, it decomposes and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If we measured food waste “as a country, it would be the world’s third-worst emitter of greenhouse gases” (Commission for Environmental Cooperation, 2019). 

There are conflicting estimates as to just how much food is wasted annually. In Canada, these conflicting estimates vary greatly from 79 kg of food per person per year (UNEP, 2021) to 944 kg per person per year (Gooch et al., 2019). The UNEP Food Waste Index underestimates the amount of food waste as it is calculated based on household waste only, while Gooch et al. seem to be a clear outlier in measuring food waste, likely overestimating the annual food waste per person. 

When food is wasted, all the resources that went into producing the food are also wasted. While the food system in totality represents about 11% of the world’s fossil fuel energy used, it accounts for 34% of greenhouse gas emissions (Crippa et al. 2021; IEA 2019). This means an estimated 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from the food system but not related to energy use (Crippa et al. 2021; IEA 2019). While annual food waste estimates vary greatly, the resources lost through food waste vary depending on where in the food system waste occurs. Household food waste, at the end of the value chain, is a much greater loss than food wasted at the beginning of the value chain, such as on-farm waste (Crippa et al., 2019). While it's difficult, if not impossible, to concretely define the impacts of food waste, these key statistics illustrate the direct link between food waste and the environment. 

Food waste reduction offers many benefits for people and the planet. The issue of food waste is of high importance to address many of the crises we are facing today such as food insecurity, climate change, reducing pressures on land, water, biodiversity, and waste systems. Many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, directly and indirectly, advocate for urgent action to reduce food loss and waste. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 target 12.3 aims to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses” (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).  Shifting toward a closed-loop food system could offer many environmental benefits, such as "improved biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, reduced dependence on purchased fertilizers, and a decrease in groundwater and surface water pollution" (Bomford, KPU Faculty, Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems). Reducing food waste is an important way to reduce production costs, increase food system efficiency, improve food security, and contribute towards environmental sustainability. 

Locally, there have been several successes in the reduction of food waste and food waste recycling. Recycle BC is a non-profit organization, financially supporting municipal governments to provide packaging and paper recycling services to many BC communities. Some of Recycle BC's 2020 achievements include "over 203,000 net tonnes collected in Recycle BC’s packaging and paper product program" and "99% of households [in BC] had access to recycling services". Municipal composting in BC has also been a great success and continues to help BC communities to divert compostable waste out of landfills. Compostable waste diversion projects in BC are "expected to reduce nearly 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the next decade" (Waste & Recycling, 2020). Another unique way that food waste is being recycled in BC is, surprisingly, through landfills. Utility FortisBC is launching its third and largest landfill renewable natural gas project, to make renewable natural gas from decomposing waste (Karidis, 2020). Biogas is also being produced through farm-based anaerobic digesters. These anaerobic digesters "process the farm’s dairy manure as well as approximately 12,000 tons/yr of off-farm organics" (BC Bioenergy Network). These food waste recycling successes in British Columbia are inspiring for what we can accomplish at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University campuses. 

It is apparent that the current food system is flawed and contributing to the climate crisis, which is why many universities are making food waste a priority. In line with KPU’s 2050 Official Campus Plan, there is momentum at Kwantlen Polytechnic University to shift towards a more closed-loop, sustainable food system that is focused on diverting food waste. As a prominent academic institution, KPU can become a part of the solution and become a leader in sustainability efforts to reduce food waste and loss. Through innovative approaches to reduce food waste and loss, adopt a better food waste collection system, and maximize the use of food that is produced, KPU can play a key role in implementing transformative change.

Current Context at KPU

Kwantlen Polytechnic University is home to “over 120 educational programs, hosting more than 20,000 students annually” and home to several student farms (KPU 2019 Solid Waste Audit). The University has acknowledged the need for drastic waste reductions and specifically mentions the need to develop “Waste Diversion and Reduction Tracking” briefly in SF.6 Operations of the KPU 2050 Sustainability Plan (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, 2020). In recent years, the university has made many changes towards implementing initiatives to reduce food waste. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, annual solid waste audits were taking place at KPU’s Langley campuses. These audits were conducted and prepared by the ENVI 2310 Solid Waste Management class to tally up waste production habits at the university campus. Based on their recommendations, KPU introduced a five-bin waste system to their campuses in 2016 in an attempt to separate waste and limit contamination. 

Constraints and Opportunities

A major limitation at KPU is their post-consumer compost and solid waste disposal bins across their campuses; the quantity and lack of appropriate signage. Although it may seem simple, KPU lacks sufficient, clearly signed multi-stream waste bins. Collection receptacles for waste “are few and far between” with only 14 discard units across five different campuses and 1.2 million square feet (Drury, KPU Chair of Environmental Protection Technology;

Delivering a collection point for food scrap in all of those locations is “an enormous inefficient cost,” according to Iain Hunter, KPU's Director of Facilities Maintenance and Operations. Hunter argues that “the more [KPU] can centralize to a single point of compost delivery, [we’re] avoiding bin costs, handling costs, labour costs to remove it” across the five campuses. However, with the lack of bins comes increased contamination due to “students [putting] food waste in incorrect bins, most likely then destined for landfill,” says Erin Pederson, KUSA Sustainability Coordinator.

There is an opportunity for “getting our community to put organic waste in the right places,” says Hunter. Strong signage helps with the visual connection of separating solid waste items and minimizing contamination. In line with KPU 2050 goals, ameliorating container labels and bin signage will increase diversion, recycling rates and reduce contamination, keeping organics and recyclables out of the landfill (KPU 2050).

While KPU has previously taken part in off-site composting, there are exciting upcoming initiatives to further demonstrate their environmental leadership. In January 2022, KPU will be putting an industrial FoodCycler to work at their Richmond Campus. The FoodCycler “diverts organic waste by transforming it into an all-natural soil amendment”, diverting campus organic waste and creating nutrient-rich mulch for the student farms ( The Richmond Campus was chosen due to its proximity to the KPU Farm at the Garden City Lands and the fact that the cafeteria is not the biggest waste creator out of the five campuses (Purbs, KPU Director of Ancillary Services). If this pilot is successful -- if the farms are able to use the volume of soil amendment and if employees are able to manage and transport it properly -- then the hope is that this initiative will be put in place across all KPU Campuses. 

In the past, on-site composting has proven to be an issue due to staging in an urban environment. Issues such as “pests, odours, and insect control issues [have] become very prevalent,” says Hunter, who reports previous problems with “rats, vermin and raccoons, but more commonly, infestations of fruit flies.”

An overarching limitation that makes addressing the aforementioned issues a problem is cost. Grant funding opportunities are sometimes inadequate. For example, a current application to the TD Foundation for funding to build the waste management facility at the KPU Farm might be “sufficient to build the facility, [but] not to purchase the equipment necessary for the associated greenhouse gas monitoring,” according to Sustainable Agriculture instructor Michael Bomford. Introducing initiatives, such as the FoodCycler, means not only funding the purchasing of the machine but increased costs from labour, maintenance, and training. Increased waste receptacle bins throughout KPU’s campuses, while important to minimize contamination, also means increased hands for gathering, emptying, and cleaning the collection containers. Staff time and availability are a major challenge. Introducing these initiatives often depends on available funding.


Based on our interviews with stakeholders at KPU, our survey of current KPU initiatives, and our literature review, we offer several recommendations for shifting towards a more environmentally sustainable system. All recommendations will assist in improving the environmental sustainability of the current food system at KPU, with the overarching goal of transitioning towards a circular, closed-loop campus food system. Our recommendations aim to inform future climate action planning processes such as the KPU 2050 Plan, which aligns with our project’s purpose. There are three overarching recommendations that include a handful of critical actions: Compost, Waste Receptacles & Food Upcycling.


One of the largest and most exciting opportunities for improvement in the KPU waste system is compost. KPU has a very unique opportunity with the student farms. The farms offer the opportunity to use food waste compost as fertilizer, thus creating a circular food system. The biggest challenge with this is turning the food waste into usable compost. Currently, food waste from KPU is composted at the GFL Delta Organics Facility. Compost from GFL has been brought to the KPU farms in the past, but it cannot be applied to the certified organic farmland as GFL does not offer an OMRI-listed product that complies with organic standards. By taking charge of our own food waste compost at KPU, we will have larger control over the quality. 

Sustainable agriculture instructor Michael Bomford is working closely with the compost initiatives at KPU and hopes “to build a covered, aerated, multi-bay composting facility at the KPU Farm, capable of composting both campus food waste and organic material produced on the farm.” Instead of transporting organic waste off-site, having a composting facility at the farms would “ensure that it satisfies the requirements of organic standards,” says Bomford. In addition, this would allow for the “[monitoring of] temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, CH4, and N2O) throughout the composting process.” In addition to this medium-scale aerated static pile composting system, Bomford hopes to “demonstrate small-scale anaerobic digestion and vermicomposting systems and monitor associated greenhouse gas emissions.” 

In January 2022, the FoodCycler pilot project on the KPU Richmond Campus will begin. The upcoming FoodCycler project is a great step towards a closed-loop system at KPU. As mentioned previously, the hope is that if all goes well, FoodCyclers can be put into place at each KPU campus. However, if the KPU Farm at the Garden City Lands can’t use the amount of soil amendment created by the FoodCycler, they’ll have to explore other avenues. Stemming from a conversation with Karsten Purbs and Iain Hunter, an option could be selling or gifting the amendment to “employees and students [...] for their gardens and yards” (Purbs, KPU Director of Ancillary Services). The goal is to keep food out of the landfill and this would be a good option if the farms can’t utilize the quantity created.

Waste Receptacles: Public Awareness, Signage & Access

Through conversations with many different stakeholders, it is clear to see that one of the biggest challenges with food waste at KPU is education and access to appropriate waste receptacles. This is a very important aspect of working towards a closed-loop system because once organic waste or recycling is contaminated, you may as well throw it in the landfill (Hunter, KPU Director of Facilities Maintenance and Operations). Firstly, waste receptacles need to be clearly signed for multi-stream waste. The user needs to quickly be able to determine what items can go in each waste receptacle, minimizing the risk of contamination. Secondly, there needs to be an increase in the number of non-landfill receptacles across campuses. The biggest limitation is the “very small number of organics bins available on each campus for food waste. If the bin is not convenient, students will put food waste in other bins, most likely destined for landfill” (Erin Pederson). Both of these recommendations align with the KPU2050 Official Campus Plan to “ensure that all facilities have sufficient, clearly signed multi-stream waste receptacles” (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, 2020). 

Food Donations & Upcycling

Introducing a food recovery program would be an important opportunity for the university to reduce environmental impact and minimize waste. Kwantlen recently switched to a new food provider, Compass Group Canada, at the start of this school year. While there currently isn’t a food donation or upcycling system in place at KPU, due to a handful of “logistical hurdles such as transporting, temperature, product and health, and safety issues”, there is an opportunity to address these issues with the new food provider (Purbs, KPU Director of Ancillary Services). The Director of Ancillary Services said that “if there are new solutions with our new food provider, those conversations are of great value” (Purbs, KPU Director of Ancillary Services). 


There are opportunities for change and growth within KPU and milestones to celebrate that give us hope going forward. It is encouraging to witness changes to the current food waste system that is in place and many of the recommendations for improvements align with the KPU 2050 Campus Plan. Ian Hunter, KPU Director of Facilities Maintenance and Operations, commented on the many positive partnerships that are forming between landscaping, food services, teaching farms, the KPU Student Association, and facilities services to accomplish sustainability goals. The KPU community is working together to drive positive changes for a more sustainable future. He says that these “partnerships are one of the greatest wows that have come out of [these initiatives] and [they're] only at the start." He continues to say that "sustainability is embedded within [KPU] communities. It's embedded within society. It's embedded within our culture and at KPU culture.” KPU is well on its way to becoming an academic leader in sustainability. With continued investment in innovative approaches to reduce food waste and loss, KPU can play a key role in implementing transformational change.


Personal Communications

  • Bolton, Dustin (2021, November 16). KPU Operations Manager [Personal interview].
  • Bomford, Michael (2021, November 15). KPU Chair of Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems [Personal interview].
  • Drury, Melissa (2021, November 10). KPU Chair of Environmental Protection Technology [Personal interview].
  • Hunter, Iain (2021, November 18). KPU Director of Facilities Maintenance and Operations [Personal Interview]
  • Pederson, Erin (2021, October 28). KUSA Sustainability Coordinator [Personal Interview].
  • Purbs, Karsten (2021, November 18). KPU Directory Ancillary Services [Personal Interview].