Trash Talk: Post 1 – Understanding Household Food Waste

This post was originally posted on FoodFocusGuelph and is part of a four part series on household food waste.
Trash Talk: A Mini Series on Household Food Waste
Overview
          Food waste is now recognized around the world as a pressing environmental, social and economic issue. Although food waste occurs at all stages of food production and consumption, some estimates suggest that up to 50% of food waste in Canada is generated at the household-level. The significance of this issue has resulted in food waste being a focus for regulation, interventions, policy, and awareness-raising efforts in Canada.
          As researchers continue to examine both the scale of the food waste issue alongside its myriad of associated impacts, it is important to also consider consumers’ perspectives and how we might intervene. In this four post series, I will explore various concepts from the academic literature related to household food waste and intervention designs.
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Post 1: Understanding Household Food Waste
          Household food waste is a difficult issue to study as it is a complex, multi-faceted problem that cannot be tied to one single variable. Therefore, it is important to develop a holistic understanding of food waste prior to considering and seeking solutions.
Food waste has been described by Ganglbauer, Fitzpatrick, & Comber (2013) as being
“the unintended result of multiple moments of consumption dispersed in space and time across other integrated practices such as shopping and cooking, which are themselves embedded in broader contextual factors and values”.
          Household food waste occurs at all stages of food acquisition and consumption; from planning and shopping to storing, cooking, eating, and managing leftovers. Because food waste is the result of several interacting activities, there exists a separation between the activity and its consequences (Quested, Marsh, Stunell, & Parry, 2013). Furthermore, many of these behaviours are habitual and have a significant emotional component. For example, the household’s primary shopper might purchase an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, a child’s favourite food, or an item on sale – all with the intention of consuming them. However, this may be more food than the household can consume before it goes bad and thus, ends up being wasted.
          The separation between activities that result in food waste and their consequences can lead to consumers having inaccurate perceptions of their food waste behaviours. When asked how much food waste they generate, one study found that participants actually underreported the amount by up to 40%. Although many accept that some food waste occurs within their households, they tend to view themselves as not significantly contributing to the problem.
          The social desirability bias whereby people are reluctant to see themselves as someone who wastes more food than others may shift their perceptions. Finally, facing the reality of their food waste generation may bring up many negative emotions. In interviews, participants have associated food waste with guilt, embarrassment, frustration, annoyance and disgust.
          These emotions may result from existing social norms around food waste. The belief that food waste is bad or unethical is a common sentiment among consumers. This belief tends to influence stated intentions around food waste. However, actually conducting the desired behaviour, prevention or mitigation of food waste, tends to be done in private. Managing food waste is much less visible than other pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling, walking to work or using a reusable coffee mug. Although social norms influence intentions around food waste, It is possible that because the behaviour is less visible, social norms may play less of a role in facilitating actual prevention and reduction strategies.
          In essence, we are talking the talk, more than we are walking the walk. When it comes down to actually preventing food waste, emotions, habits, inaccurate perceptions, and an overall normalization of waste in our society tend to outweigh waste prevention behaviours.
          This disconnect between attitudes and action is a central concept in the theory of planned behaviour and is often used to explain food waste behaviours. Known formally at the intention-behaviour gap, this concept highlights the difference between what people say they do, and what they actually do.
          This theory has led some to believe that household routines are a better predictor of food waste generation than individuals’ stated intentions (Stöckli, Niklaus, & Dorn, 2018). An example of this is one likely many of us can relate to. In the literature, it is referred to as the “maturation effect” whereby leftovers are placed in the fridge, and left until they ‘mature’. At this point, they are no longer edible and are suitable to be thrown out. Because of the leftovers’ eventual demise into a mouldy mess, there is less guilt associated with its disposal. We don’t pack up leftovers with the intention of eventually throwing them out, the hope is that they will be consumed. But when that doesn’t happen, we let them linger for longer until they are past the point of no return and we can more easily justify the waste.
          Food waste may also be the result of our society’s recent shift from a state of scarcity, to one of abundance. The year-round availability of a variety of foods, at mostly affordable prices, has led consumers to believe they should be able to eat what they want, when they want it. This freedom of choice is highly-valued among North American consumers. The desire for flexibility and choice is deeply embedded in the consumer identity and can at times, outweigh pro-environmental behaviours like preventing food waste.
          As a result, consumer values attributed to food are often incompatible with values triggered in the management of food and food waste. An example of this is the “Good Provider Identity”. In this case, individuals prioritize having enough food available, and often more, ‘just in case’. This desire can be motivated by the belief that they must provide for their family a variety of healthy and fresh foods that everyone will enjoy. This can quickly overshadow intentions to minimize food waste, even though this outcome can also result in guilt and can be perceived as an inability to effectively manage a household. This example demonstrates one of the ways in which Individuals make complex negotiations within competing values and practices.
          The intention of this post was to review some of the concepts and theories surrounding household food waste. Based on the literature, it is of critical importance to understand everyday practices around food and how they are connected to food waste. The marked habitual and emotional nature of food necessitates sensitivity when addressing this issue and designing interventions.
          In my next blog post, I will discuss some strategies for designing effective and appropriate interventions on household food waste. Until then, please review the references below for more information on household food waste.

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