Food waste in households – misleading numbers?!

The official statistic for food waste indicates that households are responsible for the most significant portion of it in Europe – approx. 50%. The most natural reaction would be to blame consumers until you realize how decisions at previous stages of the production chain affect end-users. However, the number might be misleading because we do not know how much of the food waste is not edible and therefore inevitable. Also, food that is thrown away at earlier stages of the supply chain is simply not categorized as food waste and therefore does not show up in these statistics. For more information on food loss and food, waste definitions check out our previous post. Moreover, nobody makes decisions in a vacuum; cultures and political systems affect us when dealing with food. 

So, let’s bring the responsibility back to the different actors who directly or indirectly promote food waste in households. 

Retail and manufacturing responsibility.

Shoppers often do not control the food options available at retail or how these foods are packaged and presented to them. For example, here are some reasons for overbuying: 

  • government subsidies and price discounts, 
  • promotions on bulk purchases,
  • packaging sizes (larger than people require),
  • packaging design (hard to access content). 

Moreover, each of the listed policies has a tremendous impact. For instance, package design (including sizes) accounts for 20–25% of the food waste recorded in households. 

Another vital source of food waste generation is reliance on date labels. Most consumers do not know the difference between best-before and use-by-date. Only a few products are labeled with a use-by-date that actually indicates food safety. In contrast, the best-before-date relates to food appearance and quality. However, food is still safe to eat after the best-before-date. Their interchangeable use is misleading, and some other terms should take their place to clarify the meaning. For some very shelf-stable products, the best-before-date can even be removed completely.

To summarise, retailers can help consumers waste less food (e.g., through pricing policies, providing information about food storage and handling, and suitable indicators for food safety). In addition, manufacturers should improve packaging designs. 

Cultural and systemic responsibility. 

While cultural and systemic factors may interface with households directly, their design and implementation are largely beyond the control of individual residents. Therefore, it is not fair to blame solely end-users. Here is one example of how our cultural beliefs shape attitudes towards food. In some parts of the world, leftovers have negative associations (“dangerous foods,” “looks like spoiling,” “used or second hand”). These connotations will impede their consumption. Unfortunately, people following these norms do not realize their artificial nature and the harm they introduce to the global food waste situation. 

A systemic example could be waste management infrastructures. The research found a link between easy access or vice versa distancing of separation infrastructures for organic waste and attitudes about food. Shielding people from seeing their waste products leads to decreased awareness of the issue. And the opposite, bringing more collection systems and information about norms supporting source separation increased people’s engagement. 

To summarise, household food-wasting behaviors depend on infrastructures and regulation, social systems, and cultural factors. Unfortunately, people have little to no control over those factors. Therefore, a better result will follow if we start reconsidering problems of food waste on a large scale, at a higher level of human hierarchy. 

The last but not least point is that blaming individuals will not help address the issues. We all hope that people will change their behaviors if only provided with more information. But research shows that awareness-raising is a necessary but insufficient condition for influencing household attitudes and local cultures of food waste. Therefore, if we want to decrease 50% of food waste in households, we should tackle all the stages of food production at the same time. Meanwhile, we must increase public awareness and make it convenient to use the most sustainable option. Because, where knowledge fails to change the behavior, convenience does not.

Written by Marina Shimchenko

Published by bruisedfoodclubuppsala

Non-profit organisation that saves food, reduces food waste and hunger and promotes sustainable food consumption.

One thought on “Food waste in households – misleading numbers?!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: