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Updated December 8, 2020

General Outlook on Food Waste and its Drivers

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General Outlook on Food Waste and its Drivers essay
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One-third of all the food that is produced for human consumption is estimated to get wasted (FAO, 2011). With ever increasing environmental pressures, a rising global population and unequal distribution causing starvation in some parts of the world; the issue of food waste has received a lot of attention among policymakers, academics as well as the among the general public (Schanes et al., 2018). In Europe, households stand for around 53 % of food wasted throughout the value chain (Stenmarck et al., 2016 cited by Hebrok and Boks, 2017) so understanding the drivers behind consumer food waste in order to create effective policies is crucial. By reflecting on a personal food diary, the drivers of food waste will be assessed arguing that practice theory is the best-suited approach to understand the complex nature of food waste and the intention-behaviour gap. Finally, different possible interventions will be discussed.

Current policies are mainly pointing towards the responsibility of individuals with the focus of changing attitudes around food waste with awareness-campaigns (Shove, 2009). However, several studies demonstrate that the underlying factors which drive consumer behaviour are complex and the assumption that changing attitudes will change behaviour often does not hold (e.g. Evans, 2011; Schanes et al., 2018; Hebrok and Bok, 2017). Instead of the assumption a linear behaviour where we act accordingly to what we know and what we believe (Shove, 2009) practice theory recognizes human activity as a result of a historical and cultural context, where humans are regarded as “carriers of practices” (Reid and Ellsworth-Krebs 2018: 308).

Sociological studies demonstrate that food waste is a multi-layered problem that is dependent on the cultural, social, temporal and material context (Evans, 2011; Hebrok and Boks, 2017). In Evan’s (2011) study for example, the participants did not waste food because they were careless about it. Rather “mismatch between the materiality of food and the rhythms of everyday life” left excess food which had to be thrown away (Evans, 2011b: 434). This gap between the people’s intentions and their actions is often referred to as the value-action gap or intention-behaviour-gap (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980; Sheeran, 2002 cited by Hebrok and Boks: 384). These findings oppose theories of rational choice (assuming consumers make the most rational choice based on knowledge and attitudes) and suggest that policies targeted to raise awareness among consumer are not effective. The gap can either be treated as an abnormality of rational thinking or exemplify that food practices reflect “broader social processes which (re)produce patterns of activity” as practice theorists suggest (Reid and Ellsworth-Krebs, 2018: 301).

In addition to different lifestyles, family-situations and infrastructures broader social processes can be demonstrated by the significant global differences in drivers behind food waste. In less developed parts of the world, food waste is mainly caused by the lack of decent infrastructure in contrast to the Global North (FAO, 2011). Thyberg and Tonjes (2015) review literature investigating the economic, cultural, political and geographical drivers of food waste and suggests that the modern food system is more efficient and specialized at the expense of increased food waste and a disconnection of the source of the food. For example, they point out a study showing that urban Austrian households produced much more food waste than households in rural areas (Lebsorger and Schneider, 2011 cited by Thyberg and Tonjes). Also, cultures who cherish food and perceive it as a finite, valuable resource are less likely to modernize the food system and thus remain with lower levels of food waste (Stuart, 2009 cited by Thyberg and Tonjes 2015). By making these comparisons, the issues of food waste can be understood through the lens of industrialization, globalization and urbanization and a wider critique towards our social systems can be proposed. Tentatively, an overall disconnection to food and the resources it requires can explain why food waste occurs at such a large extent in Western societies.

The findings from the two literature reviews demonstrates that both people’s values and the failure of living up to values because of a lifestyle shaped by modernized society contribute to household food waste (Hebrok and Boks, 2017 and Thyberg and Jones, 2015). This paper, therefore, argues that practice theory is particularly well placed to understand the complex dynamics of food waste. Especially considering the results from a personal food diary where my knowledge and beliefs were not reflected in my actions.

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