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The Cost of Food Waste

Changing everyday choices around food is central to tackling food waste, especially in wealthier countries. Find out more about our food waste habits, and how we can realistically change them.

Benefits of Reducing Food Waste

A recent study published in Environment & Behaviour found that targeting the wallet might be an answer to helping reduce household food waste, certainly for residents in London (Ontario, Canada), where the research was conducted.1

The results of the study found that over the course of a week, residents who were regularly sent the message “Reduce Food Waste, Save Money”, along with a pack helping them manage their spending, wasted 30% less food than a control group.

Previous research also supports the idea of money as a motivator for changing food habits. A 2018 review of predominantly European research found that “…personal concerns, such as saving money, elicit a stronger motivation to reduce food waste than environmental and social concerns.”2

But how much money are we really wasting when we toss food into the bin?

The Cost of Food Waste

According to estimates in a 2016 report, the cost of food waste in the EU in 2012 was 143 billion euros.3 An astonishing two-thirds of that total is associated with household food waste (98 billion euros). In the average UK household, for example, 13% of edible food and drink purchases are wasted, costing €620 per year.4 But whether an extra €52 in your pocket at the end of each week is a big deal to you is likely to depend on how well off you are.

Created by Andrea van der Berg

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some studies have found a positive correlation between income and food waste, with higher earners wasting more food.2 It’s not just a case of being able to afford the waste either, but about how we view and value food in the first place. When food comes so easily and cheaply, its apparent value is diminished, and we rarely conserve things we don’t value.

Relatively speaking, we are paying less and less for our food - of the eight countries in the world that spend less than 10% of household income on food, four are in Europe.5

Created by Andrea van der Berg

Of course, the abundance of relatively cheap food in Europe is hardly the consumer’s fault – it is part of an issue far bigger than the average household: the result of the systems and market conditions in which food is provided. Is raising food costs the answer to better reflect the true value of food and the cost of waste? Maybe, but it seems a bit upside down. Surely there are other ways to get people to care about waste, which won't burden the poorest people.

Is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ enough to change habits?

If we look at the other motivators from the 2018 review mentioned above, the second behind financial motivation was the desire to do the ‘right’ thing - a sense that wasting food was just ‘wrong’ in some way.2 There are many reasons to feel this way, whether they are related to the environmental impacts of waste or global hunger. Often however, just a general sense of wasted utility seemed to be enough of a motivation, irrespective of the financial cost of waste.

In an ideal world, this sense of food waste just being ‘wrong’, or even socially unacceptable, would be ubiquitous, and waste would be frowned upon like someone lighting a cigarette in a public space would. Based on our wasteful habits, we are still a way off such a world. Maybe this is because we don’t know how to reduce household waste (something to look at another time!).

Either way, it makes sense to utilise the full arsenal of communication and motivational tools at our disposal. If the mantra, “Reduce Food Waste, Save Money, " has the potential to reduce household food waste by 30%, it is an idea worth spreading.1

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