British Columbia·GO PUBLIC

Walmart insider says 'heartbreaking' amount of food dumped in trash

A former worker at almost a dozen Walmart stores in the Vancouver area says he saw 'disturbing' food waste at the big retailer. On every shift at almost every store, he says, he saw loads of what appeared to be good food dumped. Walmart say it only discards inedible food.

Retailer says discarded items are unsafe to eat, but ex-worker says they still looked good

Daniel Schoeler says Walmart workers tossed what appeared to be perfectly good food into trash compactors on almost every shift he worked. (Erica Johnson/CBC)

A former worker at almost a dozen Walmart stores in the Vancouver area is speaking out about what he calls "disturbing" food waste at the big retailer.

Daniel Schoeler says on every shift at almost every store, he saw loads of what appeared to be perfectly good food dumped in the trash, even though Walmart says it only discards inedible food.  

"It's heartbreaking when you go home at the end of the day, to see that much food get thrown out," Schoeler told Go Public.

"They just toss it freely."

For six years, Schoeler worked for a company contracted by Walmart to assemble bikes, patio furniture and other products in the back of Walmart stores. He left last spring.

He reels off a grocery list of items he says he regularly saw tossed in the trash compactor: tubs of margarine, yogurt and sour cream, bags of apples and potatoes, watermelons, cottage cheese, cans of food with expiry dates that hadn't passed, cheese, butter and baked goods.
Jenny Rustemeyer says she and Grant Baldwin were able to bring home about $20,000 worth of dumpster food in six months, 'and that is just the smallest portion of what we found in the dumpsters.' (Jenny Rustemeyer)

CBC Marketplace has launched a national investigation and learned of large amounts of waste at other Walmart stores across the country. In the Toronto area, they repeatedly found outdoor garbage bins piled high with everything from produce to baked goods, frozen foods, meat and dairy products.

The Marketplace full investigation airs Friday, Oct. 28.

"It bothers me a tremendous amount," says Schoeler, who says he only felt he could speak out after he quit.

"So many low-income people shop at Walmart. They're scraping to buy this stuff, yet Walmart is just throwing it out the back door."

Walmart responds

When Go Public contacted Walmart for comment, spokesperson Alex Roberton said he couldn't discuss specifics, but said the giant retailer is committed to reducing food waste.  

"There's an assumption that retailers don't care," said Roberton.

"But retailers do care. It costs a lot of money to deal with waste, so it's not in a retailer's interest to just throw stuff out."

Roberton said Walmart has teamed up with many organizations such as food banks to donate unsold food, and food is only discarded when it's deemed unsafe to eat.

He could not address reports from Walmart insiders who told CBC they were instructed to throw away food if it looked imperfect or was close to an expired best-before date, or if shelf space was needed.

Walmart food waste

7 years ago
Duration 2:03
Featured VideoA former Walmart worker says there is a "disturbing" amount of food waste by the retailer

A professor of food studies at the University of British Columbia says most retailers throw out food because it's cheaper than finding it a new home.

"It's much easier, much more cost-efficient to not pay your workers to separate food — to change their habits of disposing — to a system that is more responsible," says Will Valley, who teaches about food systems and sustainability.

"It's the cost of business these days in retail environments," he says. When consumers expect a variety of convenient, cheap food, there will be waste.

Saw no recycling

Schoeler was bothered by more than food waste. He says none of the food was separated from its packaging before getting tossed in the trash compactor.

"Everything that gets thrown out, gets thrown out in its package," he says — aside from milk, which was poured out before the containers got tossed.

"There was zero recycling, except for cardboard boxes, where they can make money," says Schoeler.

A store this big, and Walmart can't pay to have someone sort stuff? It's sickening.— Daniel Schoeler

"A store this big, and Walmart can't pay to have someone sort stuff? It's sickening," he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

Schoeler was so disturbed by the lack of recycling he saw at the Guildford Centre Walmart in Surrey, B.C., that he emailed the municipality's waste management department.

"I asked them, 'How come Walmart does not have to sort their garbage?'  I did not get a reply."

Walmart's Roberton says all stores have recycling programs "for a range of waste products including cardboard, plastic, film, metal, electronics and food."

He could not explain why Schoeler didn't see recycling bins in the stores in which he worked. 

"If stores aren't doing that, that's obviously something we'll address," said Roberton.
'It's much easier, much more cost-efficient to not pay your workers to separate food,' says Will Valley, a University of British Columbia professor of food studies. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

Corporations like Walmart have to follow the same recycling regulations as residences in Vancouver. Food waste must be separated from packaging.

But waste regulators allow loads of garbage to have 25 per cent of food waste — including its packaging — mixed in with other trash.  

A committee of local politicians in Metro Vancouver has recommended that be reduced to five per cent as of Jan. 1, 2017.

Even though Walmart is operating within waste bylaws, longtime recycling advocate Helen Spiegelman says the corporate giant should do more.

"It's disappointing," says Spiegelman, former executive director of the Recycling Council of British Columbia.

Walmart damn well should havethe wherewithal to fixthese problems.— Helen Spiegelman, recycling advocate

"Walmart damn well should have the wherewithal to fix these problems. … It's a huge amount of laziness."

Spiegelman says what's needed is a culture shift, where food waste and a lack of recycling become "sinful."

"People think garbage doesn't matter," she says. "But it's contributing to climate change."

Food waste is a large part of landfills, which emit methane, the second largest contributor to climate change, following carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Food waste a 'hidden secret'

Jenny Rustemeyer doesn't believe most food thrown out by major retailers is unsafe to eat.

The Vancouver filmmaker co-produced Just Eat It, a documentary on food waste that featured Rustemeyer and her partner Grant Baldwin living for six months on food from store dumpsters.

"We took photos of everything that we found … from dairy to meat, fish, pasta and rice, even maple syrup," she says.
Jenny Rustemeyer and her partner survived for six months on food pulled from dumpsters. The Vancouver filmmaker co-produced Just Eat It, a documentary on food waste. (CBC)

"We were able to bring home about $20,000 worth of food in six months and that is just the smallest portion of what we found in the dumpsters."  

"Not everything we found was edible, but everything we took home was … perfectly fine to eat."

"I think it's a hidden secret," says Rustemeyer. "Everybody seems to be doing it, but nobody is actually measuring it. Nobody wants to talk about it."

Rustemeyer says it's disappointing that stores can quietly throw away food, when a recent report by consulting firm Value Chain Management International estimates Canada wastes $31 billion in food every year. 

"I would like to think companies would [donate unsold food] because it's the right thing to do, because it's an economically good thing to do, and because it supports the rest of society," she says.

But since that's not what she documented, Rustemeyer would like to see stronger enforcement to reduce waste.

"I think we need legislation that mandates donation of quality food."

She points to the Food Donor Encouragement Act, adopted by B.C. in 1997, which protects organizations from any problems caused by donated food.

"There's no fear of liability," says Rustemeyer.  

"And I think we need an uprising from consumers to demand better behaviour from retailers."

Watch Marketplace Friday Oct. 28

  • Go Public and Marketplace have joined forces to investigate food waste across the country. You won't believe what Marketplace finds when they go dumpster diving. And they ask the federal government why it is doing nothing to stop the waste. Watch the full edition Marketplace special Friday night at 8.

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Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from James Roberts