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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Data Decisions and Researching Food Waste

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There’s no way around it: food waste is a complex, multi-faceted problem. The various drivers and contributors to this issue are both diverse and prevalent.

Perhaps as complicated – if not more – is trying to study this topic.

When considering the food waste problem, a good starting point is to assess the reality of the situation. How bad are things…really? Answering this question may seem an obvious first step. However, getting good data is far from easy.

In this post, I’m going to discuss some of the different methods we commonly see in the literature for quantifying food waste.

Up first are Consumer Surveys.

A common and budget-friendly method of assessing an issue like this is to design a survey aimed at addressing specific research questions. However, there are some significant drawbacks to this method.

For example, a survey conducted in the United States looking at consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes and behaviours surrounding food waste found some interesting results. Among their participants, they observed widespread self-reported awareness and knowledge about food waste to be an issue. Additionally, approximately three-quarters of respondents stated that they waste less food than the average American (Neff, Spiker, & Truant, 2015).

Does this mean that the remaining one-quarter of Americans – apparently not surveyed – are indeed responsible for the majority of food waste generation in America?

Highly unlikely.

What’s more likely is one of two options, both of which the literature identifies as commonly contributing to inaccurate consumer perceptions of food waste.

First and foremost, we see in the literature that food waste is the result of both conscious and unconscious behaviours. It is quite possible that consumers simply are not aware of just how much food they waste, and are therefore unable to report on it accurately. Furthermore, a study conducted by our research group in Guelph, ON found, through a series of interviews, that consumers are reluctant to identify themselves as someone who wastes more food than others in their social circle (Parizeau, von Massow, & Martin, 2015).

The second theory is that, given the social bias around food waste, participants in surveys are reluctant to tell the truth – especially if the truth is ugly (and when it comes to food waste, it often is). Instead, they will give what they perceive to be the “socially-desirable” response.

This gap between what people say they do and what they actually do has prompted researchers to look for other methods to assess consumers’ food waste.

Which brings us to method #2: Kitchen Diaries.

This method requires households to maintain a daily log of the food waste they generate. Detailed comments such as weight or volume of food waste, time of disposal, destination of waste, state of food, and reason for discard are recorded. This method allows a more fulsome assessment of household food waste and when used alongside a survey can provide some additional demographic and attitudinal details.

Although more accurate and detailed than a simple survey, the self-reporting nature of this method may still lead to some inaccuracies. Under-reporting (be it intentional or unintentional) and recruitment bias are significant limitations to this approach. In fact, a study conducted in the UK using kitchen diaries found that consumers underreport quantities of food waste by up 40% (Quested et al., 2013)! It is also difficult recruiting for this kind of study. The daily logs can be quite labour-intensive and unless the participants are highly-engaged or there is a significant incentive for participation, drop-out rates can be high.

In order to circumvent the issues with self-reporting, researchers have turned to the streets – where lie carts, bins and bags of all shapes and sizes waiting to be examined.

You guessed it, this brings us to option three for food waste data collection: Waste Composition Studies.

Waste composition studies involve physically separating, weighing, and categorizing food waste. This method is useful in overcoming under-reporting issues and participant biases. By collaborating with local waste services, this can be a highly effective and objective method of quantifying food waste.

Inevitably, there remain some limitations with this approach as well. This method only accounts for food waste destinations associated with municipal solid waste streams. Any waste disposed of down the drain or using backyard composting will be missed with this technique. Furthermore, the extensive resources, cost and time as well as strong municipal partnerships required for this method to work well are often barriers.

There are trade-offs with each approach I’ve discussed here. However, the potential to perfect and refine these methods certainly exists. As this area of research grows, we can look forward to better and more accurate data demonstrating the true breadth and complexity of the food waste problem. Furthermore, with improved data collection methods we can better inform interventions designed to promote sustainable behaviour and reduce food waste generation.

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

Parizeau, K., von Massow, M., & Martin, R. (2015). Household-level dynamics of food waste production and related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours in Guelph, Ontario. Waste Management, 35, 207–217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2014.09.019

Quested, Ingle, R., Parry, A., 2013. Household Food and Drink Waste in the United Kingdom 2012. WRAP.

100 Meter Diet

variety of vegetables

Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

Imagine hardly having to go to the supermarket. Imagine having a variety of healthy food available at your fingertips. Imagine having almost all the food you could ever need growing in the comfort of your own backyard.

Though this exact kind of a life might seem almost imaginary, a woman in Toronto named Julie nourishes herself with her own 4×8 meter vegetable garden for a large portion of the year, a style of living that she calls the 100 Meter Diet. Having spent a large portion of childhood on her grandparent’s farm, Julie became familiar with different kinds of edible plants, their optimal growing conditions, growing seasons, and today still learns from growing plants she is not familiar with. Julie says growing food has always come naturally to her; although it may seem as difficult labour for many, she finds picking fruits and making jam a relaxing part of her everyday life.

Julie grows a variety of foods while ensuring that at least something is always ready to harvest during the summer. For example, she says she can collect a lot of asparagus at the beginning of the summer, but must wait for squash until the end. Preparation for the garden happens year-round, however, with garlic being planted in the fall and starting pepper and tomato seeds indoors as early as mid-February. Julie clarifies, however, that she cannot always be completely independent, as she does not grow too many protein-rich plants like chickpeas, cannot grow certain herbs and spices because of Canada’s climate, and does not have access to animal-based products like eggs and milk, which does lead her to the supermarket for certain foods.

Even as an experienced gardener with an academic background in forestry, Julie subscribes to different magazines such as Small Farms Canada and experiments with different techniques of growing every year. She says to ensure not too many of one thing is planted at the same time, as she mentions a time when she accidentally planted too many radishes and they all went to seed, making it so they could no longer be eaten. If she has an excess of food, she often pickles it in jars, freezes it, makes jam, or shares it with her neighbours. Julie loathes food waste, and keeps her own composter in her backyard which she feeds right back into her crops whenever she can.

Julie’s garden is built from passion, history, and her devotion to sustainability. If you are looking for a way to eat healthier and more locally, starting you own backyard garden – or even participating in a community garden – is an amazing first step.

2-for-1… or none?

As a country, are we getting bulkier? And for once, this is not in reference to the rising obesity epidemic. Today, we’re talking grocery shopping in bulk, convenience and of course – food waste.

A modern approach to grocery shopping frequently involves the purchase of food items in bulk. More shoppers are joining wholesale clubs where the grocery carts and the receipts seem to be getting larger every day.

Why are so drawn to these big stores and seemingly “bigger deals”?

Purchasing items in bulk and stocking food at home relates to both over-purchasing and the inability to manage food once it’s stocked at home (Porpino, Parente, & Wansink, 2015). Often items are purchased in such large quantities that they cannot be used up before going bad. Furthermore, shopping at wholesale clubs and purchasing bulk items seems to underpin over-preparing food – which then leads to more food waste (Porpino et al., 2015).

Evidence shows that this practice can be influenced by increased storage space (notably, larger fridge and freezers), convenience, and of course, interest in saving money (Schanes, Dobernig, & Gözet, 2018). Whatever the motivation, this practice can unfortunately contribute to household food waste.

Let’s take a closer look at how and why this behavior occurs.

  1. Convenience

Let us first consider the perceived convenience of shopping in bulk. In North America, we tend to reserve our grocery shopping to a once-weekly activity. This involves planning ahead and is typically viewed as a chore to be completed as efficiently as possible. When shopping for the next 7 days, we may overestimate how much food we actually need – resulting in the creation of our very own stockpile at home. When deciding how much of an item to purchase, we tend to use the “better safe than sorry” motto and purchase a little more than we might need “just in case”.

Although stockpiling food for unexpected occasions is seen to reduce stress and save time, it can result in over-purchasing products that will not be used up before going bad (Schanes et al., 2018).

  1. Cost savings

Over-purchasing and buying in bulk may also have an economic motivator. There exists a widely spread assumption that promotional offers such as “buy one, get one free” encourage consumers to purchase more than they had initially intended, and likely more than they actually need (Schanes et al., 2018).  Porpino et al. (2015) found that strategies typically used to save money – such as buying items in bulk – end up generating more food waste. This consequential food waste ultimately mitigates any savings incurred during the purchasing phase.

Furthermore, surveys have shown that consumers often attribute food waste to the large package sizes food products are sold in. These larger packages are not suitable for smaller households but the alternative – smaller packages – are comparatively high in price. One survey examining reasons for household food waste found that 20-25% of food waste was reportedly due to overly large package sizes and difficult-to-empty packaging (Schanes et al., 2018).

Finally, discounted food may carry a reduced perceived value. Because something was either purchased on sale or else as part of a bulk deal, it may be valued less by the consumer. This may result in it being wasted without as much concern as would be attributed to a more expensive item.

  1. Fear of Running Out

An additional motivator for this behavior may be a fear of running out of food. As discussed in a previous blog post, the good provider identity compels individuals to maintain a full fridge, freezer and pantry as well as to prepare extra servings for a dinner party to avoid not having enough food (Visschers, Wickli, & Siegrist, 2016). The fear of running out of food often results in over-purchasing as well as over-preparation and thus, increased food waste. However, there may be more to it than just that. Part of the reason why we stockpile food may also be due to an interest in maintaining an appearance of abundance. For some, a fear of food insecurity may run deep, resulting in keeping more food than necessary at home.

All of this begs the question: is none better than two-for-one when it comes to reducing food waste?

References

Porpino, G., Parente, J., & Wansink, B. (2015). Food waste paradox: Antecedents of food disposal in low income households. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 39(6), 619–629. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijcs.12207

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

Visschers, V. H. M., Wickli, N., & Siegrist, M. (2016). Sorting out food waste behaviour: A survey on the motivators and barriers of self-reported amounts of food waste in households. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, 66–78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.11.007

 

 

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

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