AEDE professor Brian Roe says that it was first his study of agriculture then the study of human behavior that led him to define his work as that of a behavioral economist. His interest now lies in what drives household behaviors and decision-making, specifically when it comes to food waste (FW). Roe, along with research assistant Danyi Qi, recently teamed up to conduct the first-ever large-scale consumer survey of Americans' attitudes on FW and determined that convincing Americans to cut down on FW could require toying with psychology.
For the study, subjects were allowed to serve themselves from a buffet of sandwiches, chips and apple slices. Half were told their leftovers would be composted and the rest were informed their scraps would be sent to a landfill. They found that participants who were given information cards about the harm related to food waste were almost 40 percent more likely to clean their plates — unless they also were told their uneaten food would be composted and not wasted.
Roe and Qi found that while more than three in four respondents said they feel guilty throwing away food, little more than half indicated they understood it was an environmental problem.
"We all cringe a bit if we bought that nice fish for a high price and we don't end up eating it," Roe said. "But people think of food as being natural — it's not like throwing away a battery or something toxic."
Qi continues, “it’s possible that when people know their leftovers are destined for composting, they feel less guilty and freer to waste more,” Danyi Qi said.
According to the EPA, food makes up about a fifth of the nation's waste stream and winds up in landfills and incinerators more than any other single household trash material. Through his work with The Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative, Roe designs effective FW reduction and recycling approaches for consumers and households and maintains outreach that informs diverse audiences across Ohio interested in food waste reduction and recycling. If properly done, the average family of four could save about $1,600 annually on tossed leftovers.
“If we can conduct studies that really tease out how the different approaches alter household behaviors, then we can help prioritize which of these will deliver the biggest impact,” says Roe. “But you need good household level data to accomplish that.”
Don’t worry – Roe and Qi have figured out how they are going to collect that data. They are developing a smart phone app to measure food waste per plate of food. Until then, here are some other options for controlling FW:
- Inventory your pantry and make a list before heading to the grocery store so you buy less
- Donate wholesome, edible food to local food banks, soup kitchens, pantries and shelters.
- Compost. Combining and curing organic waste like food scraps and yard trimmings in the proper ratios creates a product that can be used to help improve soils and feed backyard gardens.