Why Food Waste in the UK will Only Increase

Today the UK news has been dominated by research suggesting that the average British family throws away the equivalent of six meals a week.  The research, by WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), claimed that this would equate to throwing away £60 each month.

I haven’t studied the research in detail, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was true.

Having read the reports and listened to people discussing the matter on phone-ins (I’ve just taken part in one for BBC Radio Five Live), there is no shortage of suggested solutions – none of which will work.

All the advice about shopping more carefully, preparing meals from scratch and being more discerning about what you throw away is well-reasoned and well-intentioned: it would even solve the problem.  But it won’t happen because people haven’t diagnosed the problem properly and, in particular, haven’t considered how the consumer mind works.

The first issue is one of attention: the people throwing away food aren’t aware of how much they’re throwing away.  The press the WRAP research is getting might change that a little, but most will assume it’s talking about other people.  Indeed, all of the callers on the radio phone-ins were offering advice for other people; not identifying that it was an issue that affected them.

This lack of attention is driven by the fact that food is relatively cheap.  Prices may have increased in recent years, but it’s still the case that money spent on food for home consumption makes up a relatively small proportion of our disposable income.  Go back a generation or two and this was very different.

Supermarkets have done a great job of bringing down the cost of food.  And now they’re also adept at getting us to buy a lot more of it!  Deals, offers and easy ‘ready meal’ solutions to free up our time for less tedious things than cooking.  (In fact, cooking a meal from scratch is a dying art: it’s become a leisure pursuit that some enjoy when they have the time – but it’s not a part of day-to-day life for most people.)

At the moment, people buy their food in a way that is largely driven by their unconscious mind and the way in which it is influenced by supermarkets’ skills at getting them to buy larger quantities; and they consume and dispose of food without significant conscious attention too.

Add in the fact that, since people don’t regard food as particularly precious, when faced with a choice between chancing something that might be a bit off and throwing it away, they will generally favour caution over risk.  On an individual basis this makes perfect sense: it is far better to be 50p worse off because you’ve thrown away half a loaf of bread that smelled a bit funny, than it is to lose a day’s work because you were sick.  It’s only when all these marginal decisions are aggregated that they seem horrendously wasteful – but people don’t generally think in such terms.

Another contributory factor might be, paradoxically, the increase in recycling.  Previously, food waste was thrown into a bag of general rubbish.  Now, many homes put it into a recycling bin, where it goes to be compost.  Generally, the message that’s been propagated is that recycling things is good: so it would be understandable if people didn’t feel ‘bad’ about putting things in the ‘good’ bin.

All of which means, if you want to reduce the amount of food that’s wasted, you need to be prepared to target the unconscious mind.  Suggestions that appeal to people to buy more wisely, cook from basic ingredients or dispose of things less readily don’t take into account how our minds work.

Instead, we need to target the unconscious mind.  It is unrealistic to suppose that people will start to attend to this area of waste simply by highlighting the issue.  If that’s the path we take then food waste in the UK will only increase (unless the cost of food increases dramatically in a short time period).

Behavioural change requires an understanding of how people’s minds really work, creativity and, above all, live testing to understand whether any particular approach works and what unintended consequences occur.

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