Helping consumers tackle their food wastage in an age of ‘bought but not eaten’

By Jordon Lazell – @jlazell

I am now a Love Food Hate Waste champion. I attended the training course and “gained understanding of key behaviours in addressing the problem of household food waste” and I have the certificate to prove it. But yet some of the information provided and the way solutions were presented have made me think more broadly about the potential of such educational actions and the way in which some solutions were presented.

WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) the organisation behind such training, are fantastic and by writing this post I’m not questioning their ability in any capacity. In the UK we are lucky enough to have this organisation (which I believe is run by charitable means) working to tackle waste and resource problems across the supply chain of a variety of sectors. Food waste is one area that has seen considerable effort and reward, working with both industry and consumers to minimize the amount of food thrown away.

The training provided in-depth information of how ‘us’ as food consuming individuals, can best frame our behaviour across the storage, preparation and cooking of food to prevent food from being thrown away. For example activities that tested our knowledge amongst others included: Where best to keep certain fruit and vegetables, the fridge or the freezer? How long can you keep leftovers for? and How much is an appropriate portion, and how can you best work this out? Discussions of personal experiences were brought out in group activities with participants noting their surprise of how things should be kept for maximum freshness (like putting potatoes in the fridge) and dismay that they had been throwing out food that could had been eaten (like the ability to freeze meat until the used by date).

The majority of actions presented related to the fact that food is wasted in households because we buy food and then it fails to be used up. This problem was clearly explained. We are wasting ‘little bits here and there’ and must plan and use food more efficiently to make sure we do not throw anything away we have bought. We even completed an exercise that involved thinking up meals to use up leftovers over the course of a week. Throughout this however there was little mention that perhaps one of the ways we could avoid having more food than needed is to purchase less, as well as whether the retailers could be partly responsible for our purchasing behaviour that puts consumers in this position.

WRAP work very closely with retailers and have undertaken some great work, particularly in improving product packaging, however I would have liked to have seen some acknowledgement that our purchasing habits are a key reason why there is surplus food in the household. I thought the training gave greater prominence to how you can make the most of food you have bought (which I realise is extremely important) rather than also seeking to re-evaluate how we shop, and how we can shop not just in a more planned way (which was briefly mentioned) but more smartly so we do not ended up with too much food.

I also thought about the way in which the training was implemented and the wider potential impact of this, expecting us as food waste champions to go out into our communities and spread the word. Educational strategies implemented to address negative environmental behaviour have been criticised previously (see Shove, 2010), underline by commentary that explains a gap between our attitudes and actual behaviours (see literature on the attitude-behaviour gap).

The difference between a high uptake in consumers making the most of their surplus food at home, and a re-evaluation of our purchasing habits and the environments within which they take place isn’t clear in terms of what would make the most impact in tackling the problem of food waste. However the later could be more successful as such actions are embedded within the infrastructure of supermarkets. Over the course of the last half a century, retail businesses across sectors have perfected shopping spaces to encourage us to buy more. Changing such spaces by removing promotional signage or reducing the size of stores to move towards buying little and often for example, could potentially prevent wastage through more thoughtful consumption, removing the possibility of placing consumers in situations where they must draw upon their own knowledge to make the most of their surplus food in the home.

However food consumption and subsequent food waste behaviours are hard to predict. People lead increasingly busy lifestyles and food is wasted despite the best efforts of individuals. A trend is evident in modern societies generally that as a country’s food system develops, less time is taken on average in managing food in everyday life. The modern food consumer is one guided by routinisation of food habits as they are squeezed between the time demands of life pressures. Nevertheless, despite the unpredictability of our behaviours, a clear premise is that if less food is bought that was not intended, then less food would be wasted.

To conclude, strategies to tackle food waste at consumer/ household/ individual level should go further than ‘blaming the consumer’, i.e the idea that consumers are solely responsible for their wasteful behaviours. Our food waste habits hold a wider social context, with large scale purchasing environments holding a direct link to the food that ends up being thrown away in the household. Efforts to tackle wastage therefore should be carefully constructed not to place all the responsibility on consumers to negotiate and best manage their surplus food situations, also realising the role of retailers in driving food purchasing.