Campaigns urging us to “care more” about food waste miss the point
Environmental campaigns often appeal to our emotions: they ask us to care. They implore us to feel a sense of connection, empathy, and stewardship, and then modify our behavior accordingly.
When it comes to food waste, that can mean anything from not pouring oil down the drain in order to protect ocean habitats, to keeping methane-emitting organic waste out of landfills.
About a third of the world’s food is wasted. We know that this waste is bad for social, economic and environmental reasons, but it still happens.
But my recent research (pending publication) looking at how food surplus is managed in households, found that in many households, food waste is not because people are thoughtless, unskilled overconsumers. or indifferent. Instead, it’s a product of our (largely reasonable) hierarchies of care: we actively prioritize the health and well-being of our family and friends.
For example, leftovers can be wasted due to health issues related to freezing and reheating certain foods, or needing to eat them within specific time frames. Many parents of young children (in accordance with parenting and dietary advice) want to provide their children with a wide variety of fresh, nutritious foods. This means not giving them the soft vegetables that hide at the bottom of the crisper and avoiding meat that may have passed its best before date.
In addition to feeling strongly connected to their family’s immediate concerns, many people I surveyed and interviewed are frustrated with the lack of proper infrastructure to help keep food waste out of landfills. Therefore, campaigns that focus on mobilizing people to “care more” about the environment may actually prevent – or at least limit – the focus on more pressing issues.
The implication that waste results from lack of care reinforces a neoliberal approach that blames consumers. This is evident in the best-known food waste reduction campaign, Love Food Hate Waste (LFHW), which originated in Britain and was brought to New South Wales and Victoria.
The NSW LFHW website implores us to take care of food, in turn promising that we can “waste less food, save money and our environment”. Suggested strategies include meal planning and leftover recipes. These might be useful for some people, but many consumers are already using these techniques. They know how to reuse food and consciously try to avoid over-purchasing.
In the few research studies that have examined the passage of food in and out of homes in detail, all have found that households carefully monitor and manage fresh foods. Generally speaking, people do not add organic waste to the landfill due to lack of respect for the environment.
Many of my participants said they wanted to reduce waste, but found it difficult to buy small amounts of fresh food from supermarkets, where these products are often pre-packaged. Many people were also concerned about over-wrapped items, such as half a cauliflower wrapped in huge lengths of cling film.
Food enters the waste stream not because we don’t care about it, but because we actively prioritize other things such as our family’s health, and because of the failure of authorities to provide infrastructure to solve the problem.
While concern for the environment is rarely at the center of people’s decision-making about food waste (being secondary to health considerations), my research suggests that people will happily use programs to keep food waste out of landfills, as long as they’re simple, efficient, and mess-free.
Such programs could include regular waste collection by local councils, including the provision of receptacles that fit into kitchens and minimize mess and odors through the use of biodegradable bags (as used during a recent successful trial by Lake Macquarie Council).
Community composting initiatives, usually centered on community gardens, also have potential, as does the use of private companies, especially for service companies. In my work with the households involved in some of these initiatives, all were enthusiastic about having their food scraps reused as compost to nurture new life.
But most urban Australian households are unable or unwilling to compost at home, and that is unlikely to change, no matter how much we urge the public to take care of the environment.
This illustrates why focusing solely on making people “caring” is unlikely to reduce household food waste as much as we would like. Instead, we need to reduce food waste in landfills by providing infrastructure that drives widespread behavior change. Simply put, we need to expand our toolbox.
Many people already care about food waste, but they also care about other things, like health and hygiene. By giving consumers a simple way to manage food waste rather than throwing it in the trash, we can reduce landfill without asking people to make unrealistic compromises on their eating habits. To really drive behavior change, perhaps what we need to promote is not support, but the infrastructure that makes support practical.