6 evidence-based ways to reduce food waste at home

Mark Boulet

Mark Boulet

From the farm to the plate, the modern-day food system has a waste problem. Each year, a third of all food produced around the world, or 1.3 billion tonnes, ends up as rubbish. Imagine that for a moment – it’s like buying three bags of groceries at the supermarket then throwing one away as you leave.

Wasting food feeds climate change. Wasted food accounts for more than 5 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. And this doesn’t include emissions from activities required to actually produce the food in the first place, such as farming and transport.

One of the largest sites of food waste is the home. In Australia, households throw out about 2.5 million tonnes of food each year. That equates to between A$2000 and $2500 worth of food per year per household.

But there’s some good news. Our Australian-first research, released today, identified the six most effective behaviours anyone can do to reduce food waste. Combined, these relatively small changes can make a big difference.

6 evidence-based ways to reduce food waste at home
Image: @takgargonia via Twenty20.

What we did

Food waste by households is a complex problem influenced by many factors. Some, such as food type, package size and safety standards, are out of a consumer’s control. But some are insignificant daily behaviours we can easily change, such as buying too much, forgetting about food at the back of your fridge, not eating leftovers and cooking too much food.

We wanted to better understand the complex nature of household food waste. Together with Australia’s leading food rescue organisation OzHarvest, our research sought to identify and prioritise evidence-based actions to reduce the amount of food Australians throw away.

We reviewed Australian and international literature, and held online workshops with 30 experts, to collate a list of 36 actions to reduce food waste. These actions can be broadly grouped into: planning for shopping, shopping, storing food at home, cooking and eating.

We realised this might be an overwhelming number of behaviours to think about, and many people wouldn’t know where to start. So we then surveyed national and international food waste experts, asking them to rank behaviours based on their impact.

We also surveyed more than 1600 Australian households. For each behaviour, participants were asked about:

  • The amount of thinking and planning involved (mental effort).
  • How much it costs to undertake the behaviour (financial effort).
  • Household “fit” (effort involved in adopting the behaviour based on different schedules and food preferences in the household).

Consumers identified mental effort as the most common barrier to reducing food waste.

6 evidence-based ways to reduce food waste at home
Image: @antonina.vlasova via Twenty20.

What we found

Our research identified the three top behaviours with the highest impact in reducing food waste, which are also relatively easy to implement:

  • Prepare a weekly meal at home that combines food needing to be used up.
  • Designate a shelf in the fridge or pantry for foods that need to be used up.
  • Before cooking a meal, check who in the household will be eating, to ensure the right amount is cooked.

Despite these actions being relatively easy, we found few Australian consumers had a “use it up” shelf in the fridge or pantry, or checked how many household members will be eating before cooking a meal.

Experts considered a weekly “use-it-up” meal to be the most effective behaviour in reducing food waste. Many consumers reported they already did this at home, but there is plenty of opportunity for others to adopt it.

Some consumers are more advanced players who have already included the above behaviours in their usual routines at home. So for those people, our research identified a further three behaviours requiring slightly more effort:

  • Conduct an audit of weekly food waste and set reduction goals.
  • Make a shopping list and stick to it when shopping.
  • Make a meal plan for the next three to four days.

Our research showed a number of actions which, while worthwhile for many reasons, experts considered less effective at reducing food waste. They were also less likely to be adopted by consumers. The actions included:

  • Preserving perishable foods by pickling, saucing or stewing for later use.
  • Making a stock of any food remains (bones and peels) and freeze for future use.
  • Buying food from local specialty stores (such as greengrocers and butchers) rather than large supermarkets.

Doing our bit to reduce food waste

Australia has signed up to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to halve food loss and waste by 2030, and we hope this research helps fast-track those efforts.

OzHarvest is launching its national Use-It-Up food waste campaign today, aiming to support Australians with information, resources and tips. Based on our findings, we’ve also developed a decision-making tool to help policymakers target appropriate food waste behaviours.

Australia, and the world, can stop throwing away perfectly edible food – but everyone must play their part.

Read about how Japan Airlines is reducing food waste from inflight catering, and how a company in Canada is converting food waste into fuel.

About the author: Mark Boulet is a Research Fellow of BehaviourWorks Australia at Monash University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Featured image: @elenavolf via Twenty20.

Mark Boulet

Mark Boulet

Mark Boulet completed his Masters of Environmental Science at Monash University and his undergraduate studies at the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University. He is also a part-time PhD candidate looking at issues of household food waste and consumer behaviour. Mark’s background is in environmental sustainability and education. He has worked as an environmental educator in Thailand, developed recycling and green purchasing systems for universities and engaged householders in sustainable living initiatives. He is particularly proud of the six years he spent managing, and growing, the multi-award winning Green Steps training program for university students at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. In 2011, Mark was awarded an Australian Leadership Award by the prestigious Australian Davos Connection Forum. Mark’s research interests lie in environmental sustainability, behaviour change and education. As a BWA Research Fellow he has worked on a range of projects involving the design of behavioural change interventions to tackle issues such as food waste, noise pollution, sustainable transport, stormwater pollution and wildlife management.

1 comment


Subscribe – it's free