“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

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Legislative interventions for food waste on the menu in the United States

A story in USA Today details how state governments in the United States are working to keep food out of landfills and onto consumers’ plates.

The article outlines three broad ways that legislation has been enacted in certain regions of the States to reduce the amount of organic waste that ends up in a landfill:

  1. Tax breaks: Tax breaks are a way to incentivize those who produce waste to donate more product that may have originally been shipped to landfill without a second thought. By providing a tax incentive to donors, the government hopes to redirect edible food to people. Additionally, tax incentives may cause business owners to more carefully keep track of and monitor the amount of food being ordered and wasted, to not over order and therefore waste in the future.
  2. Cosmetic standards/Arbitrary Best Before dates: Much food waste is caused cosmetic blemishes to food, which have no affect on the tastiness or nutritional value of said food product. Loosening legislative cosmetic standards to food could go a long way to reduce unnecessary waste.
  3. Bans: Organic bans are a legislative measure which prohibit disposing of organic material, such as food waste, into landfills. They are already in place in small geographies such as Massachusetts. Bans can be useful in areas that have both a high density in population and a low amount of landfill space. They are most effective when they can be monitored by local authorities and enforced closely, with perhaps the threat of fines for not complying with the ban. Otherwise, they  may not be effective as organic waste producers will find other places to ship their waste.

You can read more about further legislative and corporate efforts to reduce food waste here.

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

Challenging ideas of imperfect produce in BC

The case for imperfect vegetables has grown recent years, with many large chain grocery stores starting to stock”ugly” produce at a discounted rate, and countless food redirection organizations forming across Canada. One company in BC is challenging “ugly” food perceptions by redirecting fresh, healthy, organic produce from farms directly to consumers.  The company, called “Rebel Foods”, buys misshapen fruits and vegetables from local organic farmers, packages them and sells them at a lower rate than market organic produce. Founder Brody Irvine maintains that the produce is still has the same quality and taste as “perfect” foods.

Brody Irvine is one of the brains behind Rebel Food — a program to get ugly organic fruits and veggies into the mouths of consumers to limit the amount of food waste in the region.

Image: Jennifer Chen via CBC

“We’ve got some pretty gnarly looking carrots — twisted and forked that still tastes great and still has nice crunch and flavour to it, but normally wouldn’t make it to the grocery shelves,” Irvine told the CBC. Rebel Food’s products are starting to appear on the shelves of independent grocery stores, in hopes of providing customers with an inexpensive option for organic produce.

Another company fighting food waste, Fraser Valley Biogas, uses food waste to create natural gas. It now powers over 1000 homes around the area. Co-owner Pete Schouten, whose family has been farming in the area since the 1920s, understands the need for sustainable agriculture initiatives like biogas. For Schouten, the solution has always been clear. “It was drilled into us since we were kids — you just don’t waste anything,” he told CBC. “As farmers, you rely on the land — and if you don’t take care of the land, then it wont take care of you.”

Technological innovations work to address the issue of wasted food

As consumers become more aware of the amount of food that is being wasted not only in the home, but commercially as well, food retailers and restaurants are looking towards technology to ease the issue of waste.

Wasteless, capitalizing on “the internet of things,” is a startup that aims to be “the internet of groceries.” It does so by cataloging when a food is set to pass its best before or sell by date, and adjusts the price accordingly. The technology is automatic, saving the grocery store the time and staff resources to have to change the price manually. Food that is getting close to the end of its best by or sell by date can then be purchased at deep discounts by shoppers. By being able to sell the food instead of paying to dispose of it, it may assist grocery chains in reaching their “triple bottom line” of people, profit, and planet.

Additionally, this technology is working to help dispel some of the myths around best before dates, which many mistakenly believe refer to food safety. In reality, best before dates are indicators of freshness, and some do not even apply if the food has remained sealed/unopened.

More information about Wasteless can be found here.

Carly Fraser’s research on food waste in Guelph

Carly Fraser, a member of our research team, was recently profiled by the CBC. Her project involved a photovoice study of the moment when “food” becomes “waste” in Guelph households.

Carly CBC

The article discusses a very successful event that shared some of the results from this study; we will share video of the event when it becomes available.

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WRAP launches TRiFOCUL initiative to prevent food waste in London

WRAP has a new plan to reduce food waste in London. The UK charity has long been at the forefront of the fight against food waste by creating and implementing food waste reduction strategies that have been adopted by countless organizations and businesses. However, their new plan is innovative in its intention to combine food waste reduction, promote food recycling while encouraging healthy eating. TRiFOCUL, or Transforming City FOod hAbits for Life, is a £3.2  million project that will begin this September and will run for three years. WRAP hopes to prevent food waste and encourage healthy eating by influencing consumer behaviour and attitudes towards food preparation and purchasing. TRiFOCUL will use a variety of techniques to reach the public, including events, advertising and direct communication with residents.

City of London

Image via The Grocer

Londoners waste about 900 000 tonnes of food each year, about 540 000 tonnes of which is avoidable. With this new initiative, WRAP hopes to help Londoners save around £330 million worth of food yearly.

“We want to help Londoners consume food more sustainably, save money and get a bit healthier by doing it, and then use their food recycling services more effectively” said Antony Buchan, Head of Programme at Resource London. “TRiFOCAL will build on the work we’ve done with Recycle for London and the Little Wins Love Food Hate Waste campaign. It delivers an exciting new chapter in making the capital greener.”

Read more about the TRiFOCUL initiative on the WRAP website here.