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Why do Americans waste so much food?Why do Americans waste so much food?

Most people feel guilty about discarding food but say it would be hard to stop.

July 21, 2016

4 Min Read
Why do Americans waste so much food?

Even though American consumers throw away about 80 billion lb. of food a year, only about half are aware that food waste is a problem. What's more, researchers have found that most people perceive benefits to throwing away food, some of which have limited basis in fact.

A study just published in PLOS ONE is only the second peer-reviewed, large-scale consumer survey about food waste and is the first in the U.S. to identify patterns in how Americans form attitudes on food waste, according to a news release from The Ohio State University.

The results provide the data required to develop targeted efforts to reduce the amount of food U.S. consumers toss into the garbage each year, said study co-author Brian Roe, McCormick professor of agricultural marketing and policy at Ohio State.

The researchers developed a national survey to identify Americans' awareness of and attitudes regarding food waste. In July 2015, it was administered to 500 people representative of the U.S. population.

The study found that 53% of respondents said they were aware that food waste is a problem. This is about 10% higher than a Johns Hopkins study published last year, Roe said, which indicates that awareness of the problem could be growing, “but it's still amazingly low. If we can increase awareness of the problem, consumers are more likely to increase purposeful action to reduce food waste. You don't change your behavior if you don't realize there's a problem in the first place.”

Among other findings, the study identified general patterns that play a role in people's attitudes regarding household food waste.

“Generally, we found that people consider three things regarding food waste,” said doctoral student Danyi Qi, who co-authored the study. “They perceive there are practical benefits, such as a reduced risk of foodborne illness, but at the same time, they feel guilty about wasting food. They also know that their behaviors and how they manage their household influences how much food they waste.”

In particular, the survey revealed patterns in how Americans think about food waste:

Perceived benefits — 68% of respondents believe that throwing away food after the package date has passed reduces the chance of foodborne illness, and 59% believe some food waste is necessary to be sure meals are fresh and flavorful.

Feelings of guilt — 77% feel a general sense of guilt when throwing away food. At the same time, only 58% indicated understanding that throwing away food is bad for the environment, and only 42% believe wasted food is a major source of wasted money.

Control — 51% said they believe it would be difficult to reduce household food waste, and 42% say they don't have enough time to worry about it. Still, 53% admit they waste more food when they buy in bulk or purchase large quantities during sales. At the same time, 87% think they waste less food than similar households.

In studying these patterns, the researchers said they see several areas in which to focus educational and policy efforts.

“First, we can do things to chip away at the perceived benefits of wasting food,” Qi said. “Our study shows that many people feel they derive some type of benefit by throwing food away, but many of those benefits are not real.”

For example, removing “sell by” and “use by” dates from food packages could significantly reduce the amount of good food that is trashed, the researchers said.

“Only in rare circumstances is that date about food safety, but people are confused about the array of dates on food packages,” Roe said. Recent efforts to create uniform national standards for such labels have received bipartisan support.

In addition, the researchers see an opportunity to help consumers understand the negative environmental impacts of food waste.

Food waste is the largest source of municipal solid waste in the U.S. and the most destructive type of household waste in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers reported.

“Helping people become more aware of that wouldn't be a silver bullet, but it could sway 5-10% of people who are generally willing to change their behaviors to improve the environment but who have never put two and two together about the damaging impacts of food waste,” Roe said.

Finally, the researchers believe better data on measuring household waste could lead to improvements.

“Basically, right now, everybody thinks they are doing as good as or better than everybody else; it's somebody else that's creating food waste,” Roe said.

To combat that problem, Roe, Qi and other members of Roe's research group are developing a smartphone app to better measure household food waste. Roe is seeking federal grants and private support to fund the project — a collaboration with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. The Louisiana group developed the SmartIntake app several years ago to help participants in food intake studies report what they eat more accurately.

Funding for the study came from the McCormick Program in Agricultural Marketing & Policy, housed in Ohio State's department of agricultural, environmental and development economics.

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