Tackling our food waste and the technological fix

It’s fantastic to see the momentum of media interest in food waste moving from statistic filled articles and information graphics to coverage of innovative projects that seek to tackle the waste problem. In the UK, recent television programs have started to draw upon narratives of empowerment to bring together consumers and the wider public in ‘fighting’ the war on waste as set out in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent BBC television programme. But despite this impetus and increased proposition of technological solutions, the potential for such ideas to achieve real change is debatable.

Research that has sought to understand why we throw away food has delivered one key message; that the wastage of food by individuals both inside and outside the home is a problematic phenomenon, wrapped up in the complexity of our everyday lives. The transition of food into waste is encompassed in the routines and habits of how we consume food across stages of purchasing, storage, preparation and consumption as well as how the schedules we keep to as part of our lifestyles influence what we eat, when and why (Evans, 2015). Further to this, waste is a material that is hidden and absent from thought, removed from the household and also from our consciousness. Therefore any means of tackling the wastage of food has the difficult task of interrupting, changing and establishing new procedures that go beyond reducing food waste material to prevent the wastage of food in the first place.

Such solutions challenge the ways in which we consume food, from how we shop to how we store and cook things. Technology is increasingly providing tools to facilitate this. The awareness raising Love Food Hate Waste campaign for example has released an app that facilitates planning meals, making lists and allows users to store information on what they have at home. A further application, OLIO, allows users to post unwanted but still edible food online to be shared locally, preventing food from going to waste. These and other tools have shown a high level of uptake, perhaps driven by several campaigns to tackle food waste in the public domain. However questions remain over whether these really influence the routines and habits of everyday life that can be linked with the wastage of food at the individual level.

Research in the area of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) has shed some light on how our habits change as a result of technology however more knowledge is required. Through testing how we interact with technology, examples such as a fridge camera that allows users to view the contents of their fridge while shopping and a bin camera that posts pictures of bin contents on social media have positively affected behaviour (Comber and Thieme, 2013; Farr-Wharton et al., 2014). As this technology continues to emerge, can this provide a solution for the majority of consumers and to what extent can this be scaled and incorporated in mass food consumption? Currently there are limitations in what is available however there are significant developments on the horizon. Samsung are soon to release a fridge that allows you to view its contents remotely from a smart phone, and the internet of things has the promise of more intelligence appliances that could order and replace food items and provide more accurate information on portioning and cooking preparation.

An example of a Smart fridge

Further research is needed to understand the implications of such developments on our food consumption and subsequent food wastage. Specifically how such technologies are incorporated within our current routines and habits as well as help mitigate food waste as a result of circumstance change. There are also wider consequences regarding how sustainable such advances are. Food shopping trends have seen a recent shift towards more online and discount retailing and such technological tools could continue to disrupt traditional shopping habits.  For food retailers, this may have implications given the lower level of profits from online shopping and the increased decisiveness of shoppers, being more organised in making lists and potentially avoiding promotions and offers on items that are not required. This feeds into the idea of more thoughtful and careful actions as a means of making consumption more sustainable potentially going against the need to ramp up profits for economic recovery. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see how technological fixes to food waste at the individual level play out and whether they are capable of preventing food from becoming waste through establishing more frugal behaviours.

References

Comber, R. and Thieme, A. (2013) Designing beyond habit: opening space for improved recycling and food waste behaviors through processes of persuasion, social influence and aversive affect. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing. 17 (6) 1197-1210.

Evans, D. (2015) Food Waste: Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday life. London: Bloomsbury

Farr-Wharton, G., Choi, J.H and Foth, M. (2014) Technicolouring in the fridge: Reducing Food Waste through uses of Colour-coding and cameras. Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Mobile and Ubiquitous Multimedia. 48-57

By Jordon Lazell