Untangling behavioural drivers behind food waste
By 2075, the United Nations estimates the global population will peak at 9.5 billion, an extra 3 billion mouths to feed by the end of the century. Meanwhile, while we produce about four billion tonnes of food annually, it is estimated that 30-50% of this never reaches our plates. Of the food that does reach us, some western societies throw away up to a third of all food purchased.
The drivers behind these phenomenal levels of waste are complex and include food pricing, logistical and storage issues. However, given the significant level of waste that happens within the households of societies like the UK and US, it is useful and informative to consider those behaviours that drive this level of waste.
Put simply: Why do apparently rational consumers waste so much food? To discuss this further, be Waste Wise convened a panel of experts from both sides of the Atlantic to discuss and unpick the complex set of behaviours that lead to this.
This article was sponsored by Wheelabrator Technologies
Previously a director of UK resource efficiency body WRAP, Phillip underlined the importance of data and detail in the food waste debate – knowing what is being thrown away, when, by whom, under what circumstances. This requires in-depth and on-going research, beyond that of express behaviours. As he states:
Everybody knows that it’s wrong to waste food, but just telling people don’t waste it, it’s the wrong thing to do is not the way forward. In fact if you ask people they will certainly say they don’t actually waste food at all!
This leads to an interesting question – is talking about food waste the best way to address food waste? Are those others aspects, of home economics and household management more effective drivers?
Dean is Regional Commercial Manager of UK anaerobic digestion and food waste collection company ReFood. He brought insight as to persuade people to separate their food waste and considered how to encourage separate collections of food waste at all points in the supply chain. His view was that “government enforcement of separate collections of food waste was vital and pivotal to reducing food waste. “ Another important point he made was that although food waste was a major issue in aggregate, it was one of those issues that on a day-to-day, household-by-household level could be perceived as fairly minor. Although UK households are estimated to generate food waste about 7 million tonnes/year, this was not significant on a daily basis among the 26 million households in UK.
Jonathan hails from the US, a journalist, speaker and consultant of the topic of food waste. He considered the Europeans to be ahead in addressing the food waste debate and in the US the key issue was to address it as a problem in the first place. In agreement with Phillip, he noted that food waste encompasses issues beyond simply that of environmental. He outlined three rationales to persuade people to waste less food – ethics, environmentalism or economics; with a compelling argument that could be made in all three cases. He also supported an approach to ‘backstop’ legislation; with more awareness raising being combined with potential legislative actions such as landfill bans to prod those who don’t necessarily go for the voluntary environmentalism. However, he did however give some examples of innovative peer to peer sharing that was happening in the US, an important way of dealing with gluts
Julia is a UK-based food waste consultant and speaker. She noted the importance of household management within the debate and the lack of basic knowledge about how to store food and plan meals which lead to unnecessary waste. She also pointed out the need for better practice within the restaurant and catering sectors. For every meal eaten in a UK restaurant, nearly half a kilo of food is wasted – through preparation, spoilage and what’s left behind on the plate. This adds up to 600,000 tonnes of food waste from restaurants every year. What’s more, she thinks retailers need to look back at their own supply chains. Last year, UK retailer Tesco admitted that 15% of the food produced on its behalf for UK consumption was wasted. There is a challenge in addressing food waste before, during and after consumption.
1. It’s all about the data
As Phillip pointed out, the quality of data around food waste, as with much of waste data, has historically been poor. To this end, WRAP commissioned groundbreaking research in the UK in 2006/7 to act as a baseline to their Love Food Hate Waste campaign. This came up with the alarming statistic that 1/3 of food bought by a UK household was thrown away. Until this time, there had been no comprehensive research, either by food manufacturers, retailers or interest groups, suggesting the importance of government, or some other dis-interested party, taking a lead on the issue.
2. Convenience has led to a loss of confidence in the kitchen
The panel considered that there may be a link between the amount of time spent preparing food, and the skill and effort that goes into this, and the amount of food waste produced. Why? Well it all comes back to confidence in the kitchen. As Dean Pearce pointed out:
…my mom used to make soups, stocks, stews, risottos… classic foods that you can make using the little bits and pieces that might otherwise go to waste. [but now] We don’t know how to use them… that’s again part of the disconnect between food and people, as more recent trend has a part to play.
This has led to a loss of confidence in the kitchen, with individuals losing basic skills that allow them to cook with leftovers, understand food labeling, including Best Before and Use By, even basic storing. Phillip Ward pointed out that WRAP had found little evidence of best practice storage advice so carried out the research themselves – leading the (surprising for many) conclusion that fruit such as apples and pears are best stored in the fridge wrapped in a plastic cover. However, this has masked a larger trend of less time spent in the kitchen, due to demographic changes. This of course begs the question – how should we use this when trying to reduce food waste? Should we encourage people to cook from scratch as a principle?
3. The importance of visibility
Although waste prevention and recycling are clearly separated within the waste hierarchy, there are apparent links between the two when considering food waste. Dean clearly stated his desire for legislation to enforce separate food waste collections, not only to ensure it was diverted to anaerobic digestion or composting, but also as it led to greater self awareness around food waste. This was supported by Phillip Ward, who pointed to WRAP research that clearly showed a fall in food waste when separate food waste collections were introduced. This leads to another interesting point made by Phillip around the desirability of food waste disposal units – does the ease with which they are used, and the ‘invisibility’ they lend to amounts food waste disposed of mean they indirectly lead to higher levels of food waste? Certainly, Jonathan Bloom underlined the low levels of awareness in the US, where 50% of households use them. (Related: Food waste digesters can mitigate climate change and reduce costs)
4. What is more important – packaging waste or food waste?
Historically, packaging has always been a high priority to the public when asked about priorities for reducing waste. However, as awareness of food waste has grown, a more nuanced position has developed among waste managers. While excess packaging is clearly undesirable, and, within the UK for instance, the Courtauld Commitment has helped reduced grocery packaging by 2.9 M tonnes of waste so far, there is a realization of the importance of food packaging in preserving food and hence reducing food waste.
This debate shows the pay-offs and balances that must be achieved as we progress towards zero waste. However, it does ignore the larger systems in which it operates, and the logistics of modern day food systems. A cucumber packaged in cellophane film will last two weeks, as opposed to three days for one without. This is a clear benefit in terms of reduced food waste due to spoilage – however, we also need to address the issue of why it should have to last for 2 weeks – should we be looking at systems that move food from farm to fork more quickly? Again, we see that the issues of waste mask larger ones of how our food system works and how close people are to the food they eat.
5. Is food too cheap? A knotty issue.
Making food easily accessible and affordable by many, it could be argued, is one of the crowning achievements of our age. Over the last century, the proportion of household income that is spent on food has plummeted, and there is a direct link to malnutrition and food prices, particularly for children. But does cheap food mean that it is less valued and hence greater wastage? Is the answer expensive food? The panel dismissed this as unlikely to be a politically acceptable approach, particularly given the unrest historically driven by increases in food prices. The evidence from WRAP in the UK is that food waste is still a serious economic issue for households, and underlining the economic case for reducing food waste a major incentive for households, especially as food prices are not entering an era of increase and instability, providing added economic urgency
6. Legislators approach to the issue – voluntary agreements or landfill bans?
Different political persuasions often differ in the approaches they take to changing behaviours and food waste is no different. In the UK, the Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement aimed at encouraging major retailers to take responsibility mainly for packaging, later growing to encompass food waste, voluntary and so far has seen a 21% reduction in food waste post-consumer.
Meanwhile Wales (in the UK) effectively banned food waste from landfill. This was supported by AD operator Dean Pearce – seeing separated food waste as the fuel for his hungry processors, but also sending a very clear signal to the public about the value of food that it shouldn’t really be squandered in the sense of being sent to landfill. Scotland has ensured that businesses make food waste available for separate collection – again it’s only once you see it, you can manage it.
Addressing food waste in households – Data and communications
…municipal authorities save £8 in disposal cost for every £1 spent on communications.
Campaigns like the UK’s Love Food Hate Waste have been successful but the panel questioned how the impact of these campaigns can be measured. Measuring food waste prevention, as with all waste prevention, is notoriously difficult. But, people are now widely aware of food waste as an issue – we even see celebrity chefs actively talking about food waste reduction and recipes involving leftovers or food that is about to go off.
WRAP has seen actual reductions in the food measured and in some areas municipal authorities save £8 in disposal cost for every £1 spent on communications. Nationally the campaign has seen a fall in avoidable household food waste by around one fifth.
There is clearly a balance between food waste and food safety, with a commitment to reducing food waste throughout the retail and catering world, not just at home. By engaging environmental health officers to help deliver this, a potentially conflicting message can be delivered in a nuanced and balanced way. Indeed, environmental health officers in Scotland will be responsible for ensuring that Scottish food businesses present their food waste for separate collection.
It is worth considering how the message should be communicated, and by whom. The community sector are more trusted by the public than government and the private sector are more effective at imparting personal, deeply held beliefs – the sort of beliefs that need to change if we are to see long term changes in attitudes towards consumption and hence waste production.
Furthermore, communications can engage wider audiences that hold an interest in reducing food waste that is perhaps not primarily environmental. The health and economic benefits of issues and behaviours that also result in food waste prevention may be the prevalent message that fits with a particular audience. So whilst the main aim of a training session might be food waste prevention, this is may not be the external message. And this has wider implications for waste prevention, and how we engage audiences around it. Municipal authorities tasked with waste prevention will need to engage with new groups, in new ways. They will have to consider approaches previously considered to be beyond their powers to engage new audiences – should they be partnering with public health authorities with an interest in nutrition, or social housing providers that are focused on financial inclusion.
Should waste prevention even be a discipline in itself? After all, across material streams it is a motley assortment of behaviours with different drivers. Furthermore, with the knots that one can tie oneself in trying to measure waste that doesn’t get generated, – therefore doesn’t exist – should we integrate waste prevention in to other socio-economic programmes and position it as an “added benefit” to them?