With Food Waste, the Devil is in the Details

It is encouraging that we are seeing more and more discussion on food waste.  It is becoming a mainstream issue.  The challenge becomes making real progress on food waste.  I believe we spend too much time on diversion (but that’s my next blog post) but reduction is tough and we need to understand what we’re wasting and why we’re wasting it in order to make progress,  This has been a primary focus of our research.

Gooch et al (2014) make a substantial contribution in attempting to quantify the total value of food wasted in Canada.  Their 31 billion dollar number is staggering.  It is difficult for us as individual Canadians to conceive how we can make a contribution to reducing that number.  Making the numbers relevant to individuals provides, in my opinion, the impetus for motivating real change at the household level.

We’re fortunate to have municipal partners in York Region and the City of Guelph who are interested in the details – in understanding what volume is wasted, what is in the waste and what factors contribute to that waste.  This work is ongoing and we will be back in the field again this summer.  If you’re interested the first academic publication is out (Parizeau, K., von Massow, M., & Martin, R. (2015). “Household-level dynamics of food waste production and related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours in a municipality in Southwestern Ontario,” Waste Management. 35.) but I thought I’d just summarize some of the key findings in that and new research.  These details are the key to motivating reduction.  More work is critical to building that understanding.

We found that the households we evaluated threw out more than 4 kgs of food a week.  Part of the problem is that many of us don’t realize how much we throw out.  About a third of that is unavoidable – trim, banana peels and coffee grounds for example.  That means two thirds is aoidable or at least partially avoidable (that distinction is also a future blog post).  Half of the total (and more than 60% of the avoidable) are fruits and vegetables which means we are throwing out a significant volume of some of the healthiest stuff in our kitchens.  This is clearly some of the product that is hardest to keep fresh but food skills and planning can likely quite easily reduce this volume.  This worth understanding and adds insight to reduction efforts.

We also asked households to complete a survey.  We found that both food awareness and waste awareness (separately) reduced the amount of waste.  Waste awareness is simply a consciousness of and concern about waste.  If you think about it you throw less out.  That makes sense.  Food awareness is simply thinking about food.  The more you think about it and value it, the less likely you are to throw it out.

Much of the communication around food waste diversion and reduction is couched in an environmental context – highlighting the environmental costs and impacts of both production and landfilling food waste.  We found that, while environment does matter, economic and social (food security) implications are more resonant for these households relative to food waste.  It is clear that understanding the specific details of what is wasted and why is critical to making real progress on food waste reduction.  We’re excited to be doing this work.

Stay tuned to this blog as more details become available.