Trash strike: Lessons learned

Today was the first day of residential garbage pickup in Toronto after a five-week strike. As I walked to the subway station, the stench from fetid trash piled up on the sidewalk was almost unbearable.

The smell of trash is something I definitely won't miss about this strike. But I have to admit that I can thank the strikers for one thing: raising awareness about the ridiculous amount of garbage we all produce.

For months, I've been on a crusade to reduce my trash. I focused on packaging: not using plastic bags when buying produce, purchasing products with little or no packaging and refilling my cleaning supply bottles at Grassroots.

But I was unprepared for the lesson I learned during the strike. Before it, I had given little thought to my food waste. The city has a green bin program for organics. Each week, I dutifully tossed out a small bag or two of past-its-prime produce.

As the strike rolled on, though, I was running out of freezer and fridge space for my food waste. And I was realizing that it wasn't just peelings and end bits. Much of it was unnecessary. It was little consolation to find out that studies show about one-third of bought food is thrown out.

With my organic waste threatening to overflow, I had to do something. Here are some of the ways I tackled my growing mound:

Just eat it
I usually toss fruits and vegetables about to edge past their prime, but during the strike I found myself taking a second look. Could I rejuvenate that lettuce with an ice bath? Could I use that bruised peach in a baked dish? Often, it was edible with a little coaxing.

Freeze it
Most food can be frozen, even items you wouldn't normally think of. So before it turns brown, look online to see whether the food is freezer suitable.

Plan your meals
Perhaps an unappetizing option for the creative foodie who enjoys cooking on a whim, but setting out a meal schedule for even a few days can drastically reduce food waste. During the strike, I realized that my kid-in-a-candy-store mentality to grocery shopping caused me to make all kinds of impulse purchases. Plus, planning my meals reminded me of how often I was eating out.

Buy bulk
As a woman living alone, I'm not usually a fan of buying bulk. First of all, I can barely lug enough groceries home for week. I also live in a small space and don't eat a lot. But bulk bins have lately become my best foodie friend. I shovel rice, beans, pasta and baking staples into plastic bags, then transfer them into jars at home. Then I reuse the bags during my next visit. Ta da. Saving the planet several plastic bags at a time.

Shop around
I have found that some stores, like Metro, excessively package their produce, such as putting small cucumbers on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. So try to find a store that leaves its produce loose. Farmers markets are always a good option.

Learn about your food
Did you know that bananas shouldn't go in the fridge? Neither should tomatoes. But if you buy unripe peaches, leave them on the counter until they are ripe and then keep them in the fridge. Prevent your perishables from perishing too soon by doing a bit of research. Farmers at the markets are a great resource and eager to share their know-how.

Those are a few of my lessons learned. How about you? Did your food habits change during the strike? How do you reduce food waste?