The Compost Paradox

Ahhh, compost. The long revered alternative to throwing food in the garbage. Once known only to the most enthusiastic environmentalists, this practice is now becoming increasingly mainstream.

As awareness of food waste grows and municipalities across Canada begin implementing green bin collection programs, it is interesting to consider the implications of composting.

For those less familiar with the topic, composting is the process of breaking down organic matter and transforming it into nutrient rich soil. The result is a valuable product that has wide agricultural use. It is a vastly preferable alternative to sending uneaten food to landfill.

However, some studies suggest that it may not all be good and green. Cue: the compost paradox.

In a study conducted in the United States, 41% of composters indicated that because they compost, discarding food does not bother them. Given their existing practices, these individuals felt less concerned and less guilty about the food they wasted (Neff, Spiker, & Truant, 2015).

It seems the paradoxical consequence of persuading people to do something good for the environment can result in them feeling like they are already “doing their part” and therefore do not need to make further pro-environmental efforts. The concern here is whether composting can result in greater food waste generation.

In this context, it is also worth considering the fluidity and socio-cultural variability in foods that are perceived as waste. Perhaps the saying one person’s trash is another person’s treasure does not wholly apply here; however, perceptions of what is waste do vary. Some may argue that ultimately, if food is not consumed by humans (arguably, its intended purpose) then it is waste, whether the spoiled food is composted or not.

It is not yet clear whether viewing composting as an option for uneaten food increases food waste generation. However, the topic is a good reminder to “dig a little deeper” into some of these greener solutions and as always, highlight prevention of food waste over diversion.

References

Neff, R. A., Spiker, M. L., & Truant, P. L. (2015). Wasted food: U.S. consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. PLoS ONE, 10(6), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881

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Reducing Food Waste: Tradition, Not Trend

In 2018, we see the issue of food waste making headlines almost daily. Although there is still work to be done in building awareness and teaching food waste reduction skills, this topic has been receiving far more attention lately than in previous years.

However, there is one industry that seems to have preceded recent trends. The restaurant industry, as well as regional cuisines, have historically been based on efforts to reduce food waste. And both seem to have similar motivations.

First, let’s consider the restaurant industry. It’s no secret that restaurants are well-known for their narrow profit margins and extensive competition. For this reason, restaurants and chefs have been quick to prevent food waste in their domains. It couldn’t be clearer in this context: wasting food is equivalent to wasting money, shrinking profits and reduced competitive edge. From this culture of thrift, we see the emergence of creative and tasty dishes featuring ingredients recreated in novel and surprising ways. And to think, we pay good money for these food scraps!

To a greater extent, regional and then national cuisines have long served to absorb and re-imagine by-products from the food chain. Many great cuisines are built on using leftovers, eating with the seasons, saving money and cooking with scraps. Thriftiness, it seems, has traditionally been the foundation of many great cuisines.

If not for thriftiness, how might the British have come up with the traditional “bubble and squeak” meal? For those unfamiliar with this dish, it is made from potatoes, cabbage and leftover vegetables typically originating from a roast dinner. Combined and fried, this is a tasty and traditional way to use up leftovers.

In fact, many countries have their own version of this British staple. Although they are found under different and increasingly difficult to pronounce names (rumbledethumps from Scotland, anyone?), these dishes are similar in both their ingredients as well as their quick and simple preparation steps.

For centuries, out of both necessity and sometimes desperation, our ancestors have come up with creative ways to re-imagine food. Today, we give these cooking techniques trendy and catchy names like “nose-to-tail” or “root-to-fruit” cooking. However, historically these methods have been simply known as “cooking” and were seen everywhere, not just in restaurants.

So, for both restaurants and cuisine, reducing food waste seems to be more of a tradition, rather than a trend.

To learn more about creative leftover ideas and how to make bubble and squeak at home, visit the love food hate waste UK website: https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/recipe/bubble-and-squeak

Food Loss vs. Waste: What’s the difference?

Food waste can be a challenging topic to study. From difficulties in quantifying food waste to estimating its impacts, a consistent point of discussion in the literature is defining the terms used to study food waste.

Among most parties working on this issue, there is typically a distinction made between “food waste” and “food loss”. Although the definition of these terms is not universally agreed upon, Thyberg & Tonjes (2016) defines them as follows:

Food Loss: “A decrease in edible food mass throughout the part of the supply chain that specifically leads to edible food for human consumption.”

Generally speaking, this is an aspect of waste generation that as consumers, we are less likely to contribute to. Food loss is typically driven by infrastructure limitations, climate and environmental factors as well as quality, aesthetic or safety standards. Food loss most often occurs at the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the food chain.

Food Waste: “Food which was originally produced for human consumption but then was discarded or was not consumed by humans. This includes food that spoiled prior to disposal and food that was still edible when thrown away.”

Food waste typically occurs at the retail and consumer level and is driven by decisions made by consumers and businesses who consider quality, aesthetics and/or safety standards. Food waste as defined here is more directly linked with consumer behaviour.

It is interesting to consider whether these two terms elicit different responses. Does one evoke a feeling of guilt more than the other?

I personally associate a more negative connotation with the term “waste” versus the term “loss”. Loss implies a lack of control over the issue and therefore, a lack of responsibility. However, using the word “waste” more directly implies responsibility. What I hear in this context is that loss is inevitable, but waste should be avoidable.

And yes, food waste to a great extent is avoidable. However, are evoking feelings of guilt through the naming process effective in improving consumer food waste behaviour? In this case, we must consider whether the negative connotation promotes more conscientiousness about the issue or whether it discourages engagement.

Some have attempted to offer alternative definitions by, for example, substituting wasting with “discarding”, a term that is thought to reduce implied judgment among consumers (Neff, Spiker, & Truant, 2015).

My question to leave you with is this: Would we feel less guilty about losing, discarding or wasting food? And more importantly, does how we define a term actually impact subsequent behaviour?

References:

Neff, R. A., Spiker, M. L., & Truant, P. L. (2015). Wasted food: U.S. consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. PLoS ONE, 10(6), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881

Thyberg, K. L., & Tonjes, D. J. (2016). Drivers of food waste and their implications for sustainable policy development. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 106, 110–123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2015.11.016

Waste-Free: The New Healthy Diet?

Did you know that approximately 2/3 of the food wasted in Canada is fruits and vegetables?

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This statistic is all the more surprising when we consider how highly we value fruits and vegetables for our health.  Although healthy eating fads come and go, most healthcare providers can agree that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help to prevent various chronic diseases.

With this advice in mind, we eagerly reach for the colourful array of produce available at our local grocery store. However, without proper meal planning and storage techniques, it is unfortunately far too easy to let this healthy food go to waste.

Experts often blame the perishability of fruits and vegetables for their tendency to be wasted. However, it seems this topic may be far more complicated.

Over-provisioning, or purchasing more food than is necessary, is common and often occurs when shopping for produce. Which begs the question: why do we engage in this behaviour?

The most commonly discussed theory in the literature is that of the “good provider identity”. The good provider identity is a desire to provide an abundance of food that is both healthful and liked by the family (Schanes et al., 2018). This is a noble inclination indeed, but one that often results in food waste when too much of a particular item is purchased.

Another concept is the “compensation effect”. This occurs when an individual consumes a meal that is perceived to be unhealthy, then purchases an abundance of healthy and perishable food the next day to compensate for their unhealthy indulgence (Schanes et al., 2018). Although purchased with good intentions, this perishable food is often wasted.

This scenario certainly felt familiar to me! After a particularly unhealthy meal out, it is natural to be drawn to the healthy array of produce available at the grocery to help counteract yesterday’s meal, whether or not you have the time or interest in consuming all that you purchase.

Other factors that may contribute to the over-purchasing of fruits and vegetables  include differences in taste among family members, attempts to stockpile food (often done when produce is on sale or when perceived future time constraints are present), bulk purchases, and over-sized packaging. Additionally, concerns about food-borne illness and a desire to eat only fresh foods also provide rationale for discarding produce that is perceived to be beyond its best before date.

Finally, although composting is an excellent way to handle unavoidable food waste (such as banana peels, chicken bones etc.), it can serve to undermine individuals’ motivation for waste prevention. Composting should be seen as a last resort, rather than as a way to  mitigate the negative consequences associated with food waste.

So, what is the solution?

We can prolong the shelf-life of our healthy fruits and vegetables by buying only the fruits and vegetables that we need, storing them properly and keeping them visible in our fridge so that we don’t forget about them.

References

Schanes, K., Dobernig, K., & Gözet, B. (2018). Food waste matters – A systematic review of household food waste practices and their policy implications. Journal of Cleaner Production, 182, 978–991. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.02.030

Do Older Generations Waste Less Food?

Do Older Generations Waste Less Food?

To some, the answer to this question may seem obvious – yes! Of course!

Both anecdotal evidence as well as academic sources repeatedly show links between age and amount of food waste, favouring older populations as wasting less.

It is interesting to consider just why this occurs.

Historically, there hasn’t always been the abundance of choice that we enjoy today when it comes to food purchasing and consumption. Many from older generations grew up in times of food scarcity and rationing. Any, even minor, food waste in this context simply did not occur. Creative cooking techniques, the re-imagination of leftovers and a healthy appetite were all employed in the name of food waste mitigation and making the most of what was available.

Several qualitative studies have interviewed seniors about their feelings on food waste. Despite now living in times of relative food abundance, the important lessons regarding the value of food and the importance of avoiding food waste have become life-long habits. In some studies, participants reported feeling that wasting food was a sin and that witnessing food waste was anti-ethical to how they live (Cohenmansfield et al., 1995; Palacios-Ceña et al., 2013). Food waste for these individuals elicited feelings of regret, embarrassment and guilt (Graham-Rowe, Jessop, & Sparks, 2014). For them, food was clearly viewed as a privilege and not something not to be squandered.

Since our views on food are strongly influenced by our unique history and experiences, living through food insecurity had clearly left an impression on these individuals. Perhaps if the overwhelming notion in modern-day society was that food waste is anti-ethical, we wouldn’t be faced with a food waste problem of this scale. In fact, some sources argue that food waste is a contemporary issue that historically stems from a shift away from food scarcity to food abundance (Hebrok & Boks, 2017).

Of course, the solution to the food waste problem is certainly not widespread food scarcity. However, if we were to experience food rationing in our modern-day context, it is likely that our perceived value of food would increase and thus, food waste may be reduced.

In summary, my question is this: Can the growing food waste problem in North America at least partly be explained by perceived food abundance? And does this perception of abundance contribute to a reduced valuing of food, which subsequently results in food waste?

References:

Cohenmansfield, J., Werner, P., Weinfield, M., Braun, J., Kraft, G., Gerber, B., & Willens, S. (1995). Autonomy for Nursing-Home Residents – the Role of Regulations. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 13(3), 415–423. https://doi.org/10.1002/bsl.2370130309

Graham-Rowe, E., Jessop, D. C., & Sparks, P. (2014). Identifying motivations and barriers to minimising household food waste. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 84, 15–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2013.12.005

Hebrok, M., & Boks, C. (2017). Household food waste: Drivers and potential intervention points for design – An extensive review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 151, 380–392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.03.069

Palacios-Ceña, D., Losa-Iglesias, M. E., Cachón-Pérez, J. M., Gómez-Pérez, D., Gómez-Calero, C., & Fernández-de-las-Peñas, C. (2013). Is the mealtime experience in nursing homes understood? A qualitative study. Geriatrics and Gerontology International, 13(2), 482–489. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1447-0594.2012.00925.x

Photo retrieved from: https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/f/food_waste.asp

“Global Warming Fatigue”: Does the Environmental Rationale for Reducing Food Waste Resonate with Consumers?

When you think of food waste, do you immediately consider its environmental consequences?

Generally speaking, consumers do not often make the connection between wasted food and wasted natural resources. However, when we step back and consider the problem more carefully, the environmental rationale for reducing food waste becomes clearer.

Evidence shows that food waste is indirectly accompanied by a wide range of negative environmental impacts including soil erosion, deforestation, water scarcity and air pollution, to name a few. Furthermore, the actual processes involved in producing and transporting food from farm to fork generate a great deal of greenhouse gas emissions (Schanes, Dobernig, & Gözet, 2018). The total contributions of greenhouse gas emissions from food waste to global warming have been estimated to be almost equivalent to the output of global road transport emissions (FAO, 2011)!

Ultimately, the production and transportation of food is highly resource-intensive. Of course, this is done with good reason: everyone needs to eat.

However, if food is wasted by households at the end of the supply chain, all of the various agricultural inputs, energy and greenhouse gas emissions put into its production, processing, transportation, cooling and preparation are in vain. Unfortunately, 50% of total food waste is in fact generated at the household level. So how do we help households make the connection between food waste and negative environmental consequences? 

Research shows that adding to the already abundant messaging about climate change may not be entirely effective. Recently, warnings and dire messages about the environment are fairly omnipresent. So much so, that we may be suffering from what some sources refer to as “global warming fatigue,” whereby the sheer number of messages results in less meaningful communications (Hebrok & Boks, 2017).

Few would disagree that they could do a little bit more to help out the planet. Although many of us recognize the importance of reducing our carbon footprint and being kinder to the planet, perhaps being surrounded by constant warnings may result in an overall reduced impact.

This leaves us with several questions as food waste researchers. The most pressing perhaps to investigate is whether or not the environmental rationale for reducing food waste should be a focus of educational campaigns.

References

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2011). Food Wastage Footprint & Climate Change, (1), 1–4.

Hebrok, M., & Boks, C. (2017). Household food waste: Drivers and potential intervention points for design – An extensive review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 151, 380–392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.03.069

Schanes, K., Dobernig, K., & Gözet, B. (2018). Food waste matters – A systematic review of household food waste practices and their policy implications. Journal of Cleaner Production, 182, 978–991. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.02.030

How and Why We Let our Leftovers “Mature”

Have you ever opened up your fridge, looking for something to eat, and noticed a forgotten container of mysterious leftovers? Curious as to what it might be, you take it out, hold it up to the light and decide whether or not it might still be edible. The jury’s out, it’s probably still tasty but the fact that you forgot about it and the contents are difficult to identify probably doesn’t make it very appetizing. Instead of either peeling back the Tupperware lid or else throwing it away, you simply place it back on the shelf in the fridge. It’s probably still fine to eat, so you don’t want to throw it away. For now though, it will remain on the shelf and you’ll find something else to eat.

A week later, you stumble upon the container again. Okay, NOW it’s definitely not safe to eat so you can throw it away more or less guilt-free.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many of us practice the habit known in the academic literature as the “Maturation Effect”. This is described as the practice of placing leftovers in the fridge in order to delay any uncomfortable feelings associated with wasting it immediately. Instead, the leftovers are left to “mature”, only to be thrown out a few days later when they are no longer good. By letting the food go bad, we successfully manipulate the food in a way that it suddenly becomes “OK” to throw out (Hebrok & Boks, 2017).

It is natural to avoid feelings of guilt and discomfort. We don’t waste food on purpose and organizing a household budget, balancing different taste preferences and accommodating meals to busy schedules can be challenging. In this case, it is interesting to observe the utilization of time as a way of ridding ourselves of responsibility.

What is the solution? Don’t be afraid of your leftovers. Use best practices when it comes to determining food safety but try and get creative with repurposing your leftovers into different dishes. Not only can it save time but it will also save room in the refrigerator and ultimately, reduce food waste.

References

Hebrok, M., & Boks, C. (2017). Household food waste: Drivers and potential intervention points for design – An extensive review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 151, 380–392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.03.069