Food Waste Flow Study reveals food loss hotspots

Guelph, Ont., June 23, 2021– Researchers with Guelph-Wellington’s Our Food Future initiative have identified several food waste “hotspots” across the region’s food system. The Mapping Food and Food Waste Flows in Guelph-Wellington for Waste Redirection and Reduction study offers valuable insights that will guide future circular food system strategies and support businesses and organizations to reduce food waste.

In the first phase of the three-stage Food and Food Waste Flow Study, researchers from Dillon Consulting, Metabolic and University of Guelph analyzed more than 70 sets of data.

The analysis shows that specific food categories, such as fruit losses before manufacturing and losses of cereals at the processing stage, warrant deeper investigation. Storage and packaging also represent an important area of loss for fruits and vegetables, likely due to their vulnerability to damage and shorter shelf life. Focusing on these hotspots will provide more significant overall impact than other points of intervention in the supply chain.

“This study and data gives us a better understanding of where to invest our resources to mitigate food losses and sets a baseline for us to measure the success of some of the interventions we’ll explore next to reduce these losses,” says Cameron Walsh, division manager, City of Guelph Solid Waste Services.

The project received funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities through the Green Municipal Fund to conduct phase two of the study which includes identifying data and knowledge gaps and leading additional research in those areas. Our Food Future collaborators are exploring the most effective interventions to reduce these losses or find new value in the waste through living lab pilot projects.

The research also reinforced the importance of further developing climate-friendly farming initiatives. Several of these efforts, such as manure and nutrient management and regenerative farming techniques, are already incentivized through the municipally-funded Rural Water Quality Programme and Our Food Future pilot projects that will bring further understanding and circularity to local farming.

“There are a number of benefits we hope to see coming out of this work including a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) production and material sent to landfill, and helping local producers measure their sustainable farming practices,” says Walsh. “By reimagining food and food waste, we create opportunities to rescue food that would otherwise be wasted and create opportunities for new food businesses.”

The study supports Our Food Future’s goal to increase Guelph-Wellington’s circular economic benefit by 50 per cent by unlocking the value of waste. By reimagining the value of food waste and creatively using that food for another purpose, the community will divert waste from landfill, and reduce its GHG production.

The combined data was reviewed through a Material Flow Analysis, a model for the assessment of material flows and stocks of raw materials within a system. By aggregating the analysis into two Sankey diagrams—one examining production flows, and the other examining consumption flows—researchers captured where loss occurs across the food system from growing and processing, distribution and packaging, and consumption in restaurants, institutions, and homes.

A Sankey diagram is a research tool which follows a material flow from left to right, and where the lines are scaled so that their thickness corresponds with the total material mass of that category, thinning as losses are experienced along the flow to provide a clear picture of loss or waste.

The food waste flow study is a first of its kind in Canada and sets the stage for other regions to also more accurately understand where food waste occurs.

“One of our goals with this project was to establish a methodology that could be shared with other regions and replicated,” says Barbara Swartzentruber, executive director, Smart Cities Office which oversees the Our Food Future initiative. “We know that many other Canadian communities are interested in the circular economy work we’re doing. The great majority of the data we collected is publicly available. That means the model we’ve created can now be more easily repeated by other regions that are looking to introduce more circular practices into their food system.”

The full study report, Sankey diagrams and a video explaining the process are available on

The environmental and economic impact of food loss and waste

2018 - The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste Report by Second Harvest and Value Chain Management International

  • Nearly 60 per cent of all the food produced in Canada—amounting to 35.5 million metric tonnes–is lost and wasted annually
  • Canada’s GHG footprint of food loss and waste is 56.5 million tonnes of CO2e
    • Canada’s food loss and waste accounts for close to 60 per cent of the food industry’s GHG footprint

2015 - United Nations General Assembly

  • Sustainable Development Goals are adopted
  • Goal 12 seeks to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.” The third target under this goal calls for cutting in half per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030

2011 - The Food and Agriculture Organization

  • One third of all food produced in the world for human consumption never reached the consumers table
  • Global food loss and waste generates 4.4 GtCO2e or about 8 per cent of total anthropogenic GHG emissions
    • If food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest GHG emitting country in the world

Regional financial impacts

  • In 2011, there was a $30 million capital cost to process 30,000 tonnes of organic waste. If only five per cent of that organic waste is diverted from processing that would result in a capital savings of $1.5 million for the region.
  • In 2019, operating costs were $117 per tonne.
  • Food waste is estimated to cost Canada at least $31 billion annually, or two per cent of the country’s GDP. Based on this, it can be reasoned that within Guelph there is approximately $190 million lost annually due to food waste.

About Our Food Future

Inspired by the planet’s natural cycles, a circular food economy reimagines and regenerates the systems that feed us, eliminating waste, sharing economic prosperity, and nourishing our communities. In Guelph-Wellington, we are working to build Canada’s first tech-enabled circular food economy that will achieve a 50 per cent increase in access to affordable nutritious food, create 50 new circular economy businesses and collaborations, and a 50 per cent increase in circular economic benefit by unlocking the value of waste.

Our Food Future demonstrates one of the ways the City of Guelph and County of Wellington are contributing to a sustainable, creative and smart local economy that is connected to regional and global markets and supports shared prosperity for everyone.


Food waste flow study

Sankey diagram (full diagram)
Sankey diagram (production, processing, consumption)


Media contacts

Barbara Swartzentruber, Executive Director
Smart Cities Office, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer
City of Guelph
519-822-1260 extension 3066

Cameron Walsh, CFM, CET, Division Manager
Solid Waste Resources
City of Guelph
519-822-1260 extension 2053