Book Review: ‘Food Waste’ by David Evans (2014)

“One can no longer cling to the idea that food waste is due to people being irrational, disorganised, unskilled or profligate in their food practices.”

Plessz, 2016

It’s fair to say this book catapulted me into the world of food waste studies. Through an ethnographic study of eighteen households in Manchester, David Evans examines the lifespan of food from the supermarket to the bin, and what factors and circumstances within this process are that transforms food into waste.

We are not wholly to blame for our waste

Several fascinating ideas come out of this book. The one that struck me the most was that the consumer is not always to blame for food waste, and campaigns and policy should reflect this. Social practices and material realities influence our behaviour around food and its wastage a lot more than we realise, and must be taken into account when developing food waste prevention strategies.

It makes perfect sense if you think about it: if you are reading this, you probably care about food waste and the planet, but you will still waste food. Even the most eco-conscious person in the UK will waste food. Why? Because it is not just about our resolve and determination not to waste; the systems and structures in which we operate, whether social, economic or material, are not designed to help us reduce waste. In fact, they make it really difficult to be conscious consumers.

What are these social systems and material realities? We’re talking about interpersonal relationships, household politics, social norms and codes, and how we perform depending on how we perceive ourselves. We are also talking about physical objects – the fridge, the food bin, and the material properties of food itself. All of the above influence how we interact with food and food waste.

The research method that Evans uses is intriguing as well: ethnography means going to live or participate in everyday life with your participants; it means literally being there while they carry out the very practices you want to observe and research. A much more intimate method than surveys, it allowed him to interview the participants informally and delve deeper into their activities and motives. As the study took place over several months, it also meant he could understand habits and relationships a lot better.

How is food wasted?

Reimagining food waste is at the heart Evans’s book. At the very beginning, we are asked to unlearn the idea that waste is an ‘end-of-pipe problem’ for which households and consumers are largely responsible. As 60% of food waste occurs at household level, this is a bold claim, but what he means it that food waste doesn’t just fall out at the end of a process, but is a process itself that is influenced at many stages. Due to this misconception, policies and campaigns will fall short because they do not get to the root of the problem about why food is wasted in the first place.

One interesting finding was that food became undesirable in other ways than going off. For example, participants tended to remove old food when new food arrived, considering its value decreased in the presence of the fresher version, even if it was still fine to eat. Moreover, food that had become a surplus ‘can also be viewed as dirty in the more symbolic sense famously identified by Mary Douglas (1966) insofar as it represents a disruptive presence within the home’ and that ‘the removal of this material can be viewed as an attempt to restore order to the household’. This ‘symbolic’ view of food waste reflects social identities and values rather than biological realities – one of the social structures that influences food waste.

Another original concept into waste theory is introduced in Chapter 5. Evans describes a phenomenon called ‘the gap’ to explain the ‘process of ridding’ in the passage of food enters to become waste. Foods that becomes a surplus ‘are not immediately useful and have not yet realised the value that was anticipated at the point of acquisition’ but are also not yet useless. Something has to happen to make this leap.

Evans describes that in many cases, foods were not always discarded ‘at the point at which they are acknowledged as surplus; rather they are put somewhere else’. Surplus ingredients tend to be forgotten about in cupboards or fridge drawers, and for cooked meals, kept out of sight as intended leftovers that eventually go off. This is ‘the gap’ in disposal because it allows the transition of useful food into useless food. It makes us feel better about wasting food, as it legitimately becomes inedible, even though our actions of hiding it somewhere was somewhat deliberate. In a non-linear manner, this does not always happen as sometimes food is retrieved from ‘the gap’ and saved.

The significance of objects

The book takes another route in Chapter 6 where we briefly encounter the agency of objects in food waste processes. Firstly, food itself is an object that exerts influence over us. Evans observes that food ‘can be viewed as a relevant actant in shaping its own passage to becoming waste’, because changes in appearance and texture due to its biological attributes influence how humans respond to its presence. In other words, if food looks weird, even if still edible, it is likely to be thrown out.

Evans extends this idea to food caddies, insofar as they affect the spaces they inhabit and change human behaviours. For example, they make food disposal a reality and make people feel better about discarding food, as they have this option rather than a regular bin. This line of thought is interesting but would have benefited from further exploration into the agency of other objects, such as fridges, especially since he points out that they are key players in the ‘gap’ and ‘ridding’ processes.

Inter-social practices and power structures

We revisit surplus food in Chapter 7, and how it may be retrieved from ‘the gap’ in circumstances such as gifting to others, reusing for another meal or turning it into compost. Social practices and anxieties of self-identity resurface here. When gifting, participants worried about how others perceived their competence of cooking, and how reheating food might demonstrate a lesser level of parenting than making something fresh.

I have to admit that Evans frustrates me greatly here. The starkest failure of this book is its refusal to fully address gendered power imbalances within the discourse of food waste. In their reviews of the book, Plessz (2016) and Loew (2016) both notice this absence and agree the book would have benefited from its exploration. Frustratingly, Evans does touch on literature about the role of women in the household (p. 39-40), but does not inspect it any further, despite it playing a major role in social practices.

He recounts an extreme case where a female participant must buy and prepare back-up meals in case her husband ‘vetoes’ her chosen ingredients or decides he does not care for what she prepares, sometimes even choosing to leave the house and eat out if the meal fails his expectations. As a result, food is invariably wasted at every meal. This is a potent example of Charles and Kerr’s argument:

‘although women may have the day-to-day responsibility for food provision for their families, it is men who have the power and control’

(1988: 40)

As food is still a gendered issue even now (Lake et al., 2006), this would have been a significant avenue to pursue.

Food Waste is a fascinating and refreshing approach to waste theory that offers a significant contribution to existing literature. Evans’ original goal to reshape the way we look at food waste on an individual or household level has been achieved. After reading it, I agree with Plessz (2016) that ‘one can no longer cling to the idea that food waste is due to people being irrational, disorganised, unskilled or profligate in their food practices’.

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