Sustainable America Blog

4 Surprising Findings About Food Waste

Packages of bulk chicken

Buying in bulk can lead to food waste. Photo: Stephen Downes via Flickr

A trio of new surveys on U.S. consumer food waste has been released in the last month, which is encouraging news for those of us who are looking for ways to help Americans waste less food. Much of the current body of food waste research, while helpful, has been conducted in other counties, so it’s great to see a trend toward figuring out what’s really happening in American kitchens. Here’s a rundown of interesting findings from the reports:

1. We waste more than we think.
If we take only one thing away from this new research, it’s that we waste more food than we think we do. In a survey of 1,010 consumers conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, 73 percent of respondents said they throw away less food than the average American, a statistical impossibility. In a qualitative investigation of buying habits by the University of Arizona, researcher Victoria Ligon had similar findings. “…most people felt they were less wasteful than average and that they held a stronger distaste for waste than peers,” she writes in her thesis on the topic. Respondents to a survey sponsored by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) estimated their household food waste to cost them $640 annually, which is almost $300 less than USDA estimates. We had similar findings in our 2013 Food/Fuel Public Opinion Poll.

Bottom line: You might not be as good at reducing your food waste as you think you are. Keep doing what you’re doing, but maybe you can find a few other ways to waste less.

2. We trick ourselves into thinking we waste less.
Most of us agree that food waste a problem. According to the 1,000-person survey sponsored by the ACC, 70% of us are bothered by the amount of food wasted in the United States. Likewise, the University of Arizona study revealed a “strong and universal discomfort with throwing away food” among its 17 participants. So what happens when, week after week, we end up throwing away spoiled food or forgotten leftovers despite this aversion to waste? We experience cognitive dissonance, according to Ligon. In order to avoid this uncomfortable feeling, Ligon found that participants tended to make excuses to justify throwing away items. Other participants admitted saving leftovers that they knew deep down they would never eat, like a dish that didn’t turn out very well. Then, when the leftovers sprout mold, they had a better reason to throw it away. Another strategy is one we’ve probably all engaged in — the great fridge clean out. Throwing away everything that’s gone bad all at once may make us feel the remorse of wasted food just once, rather than on a daily basis.

Bottom line: If you habitually save leftovers but never eat them, think about ways you can reduce the amount of leftover food in the first place rather than store it just to toss it later.

3. We don’t view food waste as an environmental issue.
Uneaten food wastes all the water, fertilizer and energy used to produce it. Food takes up more than 20 percent of our landfill space. As it decomposes, it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. It seems, though, that many Americans either aren’t aware or don’t care about the footprint of their discarded food.

Reported Importance of Motivations to Reduce Food Discards

In the Johns Hopkins survey, environmental concerns ranked last in a list of motivators to reduce food waste. Twenty-two percent ranked environmental motivators as “not at all important” (see figure above). In the ACC survey only 15 percent made the link between food waste and adverse impacts on the environment. And only “a few” of the University of Arizona’s participants had concerns about environmental impacts of food waste.

Bottom Line: We need to do more to educate people about the environmental impacts of wasting food. Or, play up what the surveys say we really care about: saving money.

4. We need to shop more often.
Perhaps the most interesting finding from these new studies comes from the University of Arizona report, which delved deeply into the food shopping behaviors of 17 people. The way many of them — and many Americans — shop is to plan ahead for a week of meals and buy everything at once. Some go even further, buying in bulk and stockpiling particular items for fear of running out or because of a sale. That seems efficient, right? The problem is that we are not very good at predicting what we will want to eat in the future, so we overbuy and end up wasting more, according to the study.

Bottom line: Ligon suggests shopping more often and getting only what you’ll need for the next few meals. While that’s not practical for everyone, it’s definitely something to try if you can swing it.

To learn more about food waste and get tips for wasting less, visit ivaluefood.com, Sustainable America’s campaign to reduce wasted food in America.

Amy Leibrock
Blog Editor

RELATED ARTICLES
Creative Ways to Use Leftovers
Food Waste Tips From Real People
8 Ways to Take Action on Food Waste

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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