How Central Ohio Got People to Eat Their Leftovers by Susan Shain – a great title for an article published on 1 January 2023. If your New Year’s resolution is to be more sustainable, less wasteful or save money, then reducing food waste at home is one the best thing you can do. For these residents of Central Ohio, it has become a way of life, but they didn’t get there on their own. A concerted effort from the public waste agencies, schools and communities has put food waste on the map in a country that needs it – over a third of food is wasted in the USA.
However, that is not why I found this article so interesting. Usually I am quite cynical when it comes to articles that focus on what consumers can do about food waste, but this article had four delicious nuggets that caught my eye immediately.
1 – The research method
I’ll get the most boring one out of the way first. Shain describes a public campaign run by the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO) which wanted to measure how successful its food waste campaign had been, and both questionnaires and physical waste surveys (as in, digging through participants’ bins) were carried out. This is very good news!
There is no standard way of collecting quantitative food waste data, and that some methods are much less reliable than others. Individuals tend to underestimate or overestimate the amount of waste produced in self-reporting methods like surveys and questionnaires. One study in 2019 used both questionnaires and physical waste surveys, and found that only 6% – 6%! – of participants gave an accurate report of their food waste in the questionnaires, compared to the physical waste surveys. It is much better to pair surveys or questionnaires with another method of data collection to verify the answers or strengthen the quality of data. I am very happy that research is going in this direction and that campaigns are recognising this, and I hope others like UK-based organisation WRAP will start combining methods too.
2 – The “pocketbook” issue
SWACO considered climate change too abstract to focus on in their campaign messaging, and framed food waste in terms of saving money and saving fuel as “pocketbook” issues. In stark contrast, a new public campaign in the UK has put climate change front and centre. The first line on the website of Wasting Food: It’s Out of Date reads: ‘Did you know that throwing out food is one of the biggest contributors to climate change?’ and their tagline is ‘Wasting food feeds climate change’. (I have an issue with this campaign for a few reasons but we won’t get into that now.)
What is determined as a successful hook clearly varies by country and locality. In the UK, climate change and the environment consistently poll within the top 5 most concerning issues to citizens. It is also much more of a concern for the younger residents in Ohio. Children are quoted in Shain’s article as being key drivers in food waste campaigns, whether at home or in the community, and climate change is something they care deeply about. Perhaps the messaging in Ohio will change in the future to fit these changing demographics.
3 – The 20-30% success rate
The third thing that struck me was the success rate – how much food was reduced in households after the public intervention. In the Ohio campaign, respondents in reported wasting 23% less food. I thought this number was familiar, and I flicked to the National Geographic article I’d reviewed. There the UK-based organisation WRAP admitted to hitting a brick wall after reaching a fifth, or 20%, reduction in food waste.
Shain’s article points out that in London, Ontario, a campaign managed a 30% success rate, and from what I could find, others have reported 31%, 30%, 28%, and 19%, It should be noted that some have no meaningful impact at all and most do not evaluate effectiveness.
There seems to be a common theme whereby campaigns report a success rate of 20-30%. What is it about this number? It seems that public campaigns will always reach a brick wall for food waste reductions in households unless there is another sort of intervention that occurs alongside them.
4 – The thing under our noses all this time?
What could these other interventions be? Shain hits upon one of them in the first paragraph. ‘Jennifer Savage was scrambling to pull something together for dinner. Deep in the back of her fridge, she found a container of stuffed peppers. Very old stuffed peppers.’ Our old friend the fridge strikes again.
Fridges were initially designed to prevent food waste by making it last longer, but they can influence wasteful behaviour too through their size and shape. Deep drawers and shelves mean that food is often out of sight, and even our favourite items are accidentally left to mould. Could it be that the innocuous object in our kitchen, the thing we never really think about, is a key player in our food waste practices? If they were designed differently, would that help us reduce our waste? Would they help break the 20-30% brick wall?
What is clear is that the solution goes beyond education campaigns. Shain explains:
‘Despite decades of haranguing, Americans are still terrible at recycling. And the reasons people waste food are much more complex than the reasons they throw water bottles in the wrong bin: They forget the spinach in the fridge and get more; they buy avocados that go bad before they get eaten; they cook a huge holiday spread to show love to friends and family and then can’t finish it all.’
Complex problems will need complex solutions and public agencies will need to look outside the box when it comes to reducing food waste. The good news is that there is clearly an appetite to find solutions: SWACO gave a $25,000 grant to a school district to support a composting campaign. Whether for the climate, saving money or being better citizens, as long as stories like this continue, we are moving in the right direction.