Are we throwing away more food than we think?

Amanda Evans and her team sort waste

Edmontonians might be throwing away more food than they think, a new University of Alberta study reveals.

Amanda Evans spent last summer sorting ripe garbage as part of a waste audit and found that study participants produced an average of five kilograms of food waste a week—some as much as 19 kilograms. Most participants thought they wasted less food than the average comparable household, and reported tossing “very little” food or even “none” over the prior two weeks.

The graduate sociology student conducted her study to gain insight into Edmontonians’ habits, perceptions and attitudes about food waste, to guide future city waste reduction initiatives. Edmonton has committed to end poverty (End Poverty Edmonton 2015) and to divert up to 90 per cent of residential waste from landfill (The Way We Green); finding ways to reduce food waste contributes to both of those goals.

The study focused on three neighbourhoods with mainly single-unit detached homes. Door-to-door surveys were conducted to pre-screen qualified participants who were then invited to do a more in-depth interview. Participants could then partake in an audit of their waste and a week of documenting their food waste habits.

Evans and her team underscored for participants that the researchers didn’t want them to change their behaviour; the goal was to see the reality of how people deal with waste at home.

"It’s difficult, because people feel judged when you start asking them about waste," said Evans. "Nobody likes to waste."

"Nobody likes to think that they’re wasting anything."

So why the discrepancy between participants’ views and how much food ended up in their trash? Evans suggested it could be due in part to people tossing small amounts at a time. She also pointed out that, for various reasons, people’s attitudes can contradict their actions.

"People’s attitudes are assumed to match their behaviours. So when you’re interviewing somebody on their attitudes, you just automatically assume that they’re going to behave according to what they’re saying," said Evans. "But time and time again, we know that’s not true—behaviours are something different; they’re socially constructed and circumstantially constructed."

In analyzing the garbage, the team identified food-related waste and categorized it as unavoidable (such as avocado pits), possibly avoidable (such as potato skins), avoidable, or food packaging.

Common reasons participants cited for food waste were that too much food was prepared at once, or they bought too many fruits and veggies. Further, participants said they usually threw out food because it had been kept or left out too long, or no one wanted to eat leftovers. However, 52 per cent of avoidable food waste (or 27 per cent of all food-related waste) was still in its package.

Though the study’s sample size was small, and thus assumptions cannot be made about Edmonton residents as a whole, it’s a useful tool for informing future studies and campaigns to reduce food waste in the city.

Tips to reduce food waste

  • Buy produce in smaller batches so you can use it before it gets funky.
  • Buy food with less packaging. Bulk items are great—just don’t buy more food than you can use!
  • Label and freeze leftovers and create a plan for what to do with them (who will eat them or take them home).
  • Shop weekly. (Not more, not less.)
  • Make a list just before grocery shopping. It’s more effective than keeping a long-term list on the fridge or no list at all.

The research was conducted as part of Sustainability Scholars, a U of A program run in partnership with the City of Edmonton.

Learn more at sustainability.ualberta.ca/scholars