An appalling amount of perfectly edible food goes straight from our kitchens into the trash. Retailers and restaurants are often blamed for excessive food waste, yet according to the US Department of Agriculture, consumers are primarily responsible: In 2010, consumers threw away two-thirds of the 133 billion pounds of uneaten food that was produced for consumption.
Yet only half of Americans are aware that food waste is a problem, according to a recent survey of attitudes toward food waste. Most claim there are good reasons to throw food away, yet they still feel guilty about it. The study authors hope that increased awareness about the effects of food waste could help change behaviors.
"It's not on the top of people's minds," says Brian Roe, study coauthor and a professor of agricultural marketing and policy at Ohio State University. "There's still a lot of room for awareness to increase, and then people may be more open to reducing food waste."
Throwing away less food would be a "triple win" for society, he says. First, it allows consumers to save money — for a family of four, an estimated $1,365 to $2,275 per year. Reduced waste also makes more food available for individuals with unreliable access to adequate food, also known as food insecurity. Finally, decomposition of food waste in landfills produces methane — a potent greenhouse gas — so reducing waste could significantly help the environment.
In a national telephone survey of 500 randomly identified adults, 53 percent of respondents said they had seen or heard that food waste was problematic. That's roughly 10 percent higher than the results of a Johns Hopkins survey published last year, suggesting that awareness of the problem is growing.
Three-quarters of people said they feel guilty when throwing away food, yet 51 percent of households felt it would be difficult to reduce food waste, and 42 percent said they didn't have time to worry about it. That may be because most people think someone else is more at fault: In the highest point of agreement in the survey, 87 percent of those interviewed believed they waste less food than households of similar size.
On the benefits of throwing away food, 59 percent of consumers believed some waste is necessary to ensure meal freshness and quality.
And 68 percent believed that it is fine to throw away food that has passed its expiration date, because it reduces the chance of getting sick. Yet food date labels — a dizzying array of "expires on," "use by," and "best by" — are not intended as safety indicators. Instead, these dates denote a manufacturer's estimate of a how long a food will look and taste its best for display in a store. "A lot of food is perfectly good after the label date," says study coauthor Danyi Qi, a graduate student at OSU. For accurate food safety information, consumers should consult FDA guidelines on food storage.
Since food waste statistics remain so high, "it would seem that, on average in America, the perceived benefits outweigh the perceived guilt of wasting food," says Roe. But the results suggest there are opportunities to chip away at the misconceptions around food waste — such as emphasizing the negative environmental effects and educating Americans about food labels — to help households reduce how much food they throw away. "The best case scenario is we have another mini-recycling revolution," says Roe.
Consumers can take easy steps to reduce their food waste. Start by making a shopping list ahead of time, so you purchase only what you need. Also think carefully about bulk purchases, such as at Costco or Sam's Club, which can feel economical at the time of purchase but not worth the cost if you throw some of it away.