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Consumers are motivated to reduce food waste

Motivation and the opportunity to save money may be the key to reduce food waste in Danish households. This is the conclusion of a recent report from the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University. The report examines the Danes’ perceptions of food waste and their behaviour.

[Translate to English:] Når noget bliver smidt ud, er det mest brød, grøntsager og frugt. Foto: Colourbox

A significant part of the food produced is thrown out. Food waste is expensive, it affects our environment negatively, it has certain social consequences, and a considerable amount of food waste comes from our households. Based on this, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency requested DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture to examine food waste among consumers. The MAPP Centre, Department of Management at Aarhus University, was responsible for the assignment and made the DCA report "Consumer food waste in Denmark."

We need general information on the Danes’ perceptions of food waste as well as how consumer behaviour interacts in relation to food waste, and therefore the researchers focused on gathering this kind of information. The study used an online questionnaire to collect data from 508 participants. 

We buy too much food

When asked what food waste is, the most frequent answer is that ”we buy too much”. At the same time, 85 percent of the respondents said that they had seen or heard something about food waste during the last year. In addition, many people were aware of the environmental consequences and knew how much money their household spent on food that was subsequently thrown out. 

The respondents’ answers showed that they are well aware of food waste, but in relation to e.g. date labelling or social consequences of food waste, there is definitely room for improvement, says Postdoc Violeta Stancu from the MAPP Centre. She is one of the researchers behind the study. 

What kinds of food are thrown out?

The majority (61 percent) of the respondents stated that they threw out less than one tenth of the products bought. Generally, people threw out vegetables, fruit and bread. We also throw out raw foods and the food we cook ourselves. In addition, processed foods to be stored in the fridge are more likely to be thrown out than processed foods that are not stored in the fridge. 

We willingly save lasagna leftovers (94 percent of the participants answering the questionnaire). If there are leftovers enough for at least one person to eat, most people will save fried/cooked meat (92 percent), potatoes (84 percent), cooked vegetables (72 percent), fresh green salads (79 percent) or gravy (61 percent). 

- The respondents who stated that they will save leftovers are, however, not sure that they will eat the leftovers later, which is rather worrisome, says Violeta Stancu. 

We witness a similar pattern when we prepare meals and do not use all of any given ingredient. 

- Raw ingredients are often stored for later use, cheese and meat-based ingredients in particular. However, the majority of people responded that they do not always use the leftovers for meals later, explains Violeta Stancu. 

The respondents were further asked if they would use minced meat that was close to the expiry date instead of fresh fish. Most responded that they would put the minced meat in the freezer and eat the fish while it was still fresh. When asked about old and wrinkled fruits most people said they would throw those out. 

- In addition, you would think that the flexible composition of modern households would have a significant impact on how much food is thrown away, but our study did not confirm this correlation. However, there was a significant correlation between shopping frequency and the amount of food waste, Violeta Stancu points out. 

Is the food edible?

Consumer perceptions of food edibility may also be important in relation to food waste. In the study, people’s perceptions varied with regard to which foods or parts of foods were seen as edible, e.g. apple peels, fish skin or brown bananas. 

- In order to avoid food waste, it may be useful to improve consumers’ knowledge of which parts of foods are edible. For some people, it may be difficult to break the habits of not using certain parts of foods, but others may just not be aware that certain foods, or parts of foods, are safe to eat. It may also be useful to provide guidance on how to use stale breads in recipes, explains Violeta Stancu. 

How do we shop in relation to wasting food?

The way we shop may be important to the amount of food we throw out. The majority of people in the study checks their fridges and cupboards before shopping, but only few actually prepare meal plans, which is a very efficient way to avoid buying too much food. 

- More than half of the respondents buy more than they need, when faced with quantity discounts. In this case, it might be useful to inform consumers that it is preferable to store the excess purchases in the freezer and save them for later. It would also be good if consumers avoid buying too much food out of concern for running out of certain groceries, and finally, it would be very helpful if they stick to their shopping lists and avoid temptations along the way, Violeta Stancu points out. 

She further adds that consumers might find it helpful to get tips to avoid forgetting stored foods in the freezer and fridge, and that consumers could be encouraged to prepare meal plans and use leftovers for lunch. 

Motivated to reduce food waste

If consumers are motivated to reduce food waste, it may result in less food waste. According to this study, the most motivating factor was the opportunity to save money (66 percent). Other factors comprised personal values and the opportunity to improve the environment (both 59 percent). 

- Consumers are motivated to change their behaviour and help improve the environment if they can save money at the same time. Further, it should be emphasized that impulse buying depends on the individual shopper. If you tend to do this, it might be a good idea to bring a shopping list in order to try to avoid impulse purchases, says Violeta Stancu, adding: 

- In retail, impulse buying and food waste might be tackled by avoiding offers that promise larger quantities for less money. 

This study provides useful insights regarding consumer food waste in Danish households. Further studies may be relevant to identify how consumer perceptions change over time, and how this behavior is established. Likewise, it would be interesting to identify the barriers that consumers face when trying to change shopping behavior, and to go in depth with the incentives that motivate consumers. All individuals are different, and it might be relevant to identify what kind of messages appeal to different types of consumers to affect food waste, say the authors of the report. 

Read the DCA report Consumer food waste in Denmark 

For more information please contact:

Postdoc Violeta Stancu, MAPP Centre, Department of Management, Aarhus University, telephone: +45 8716 5016, e-mail: viost@mgmt.au.dk

Professor Liisa Lähteenmäki, MAPP Centre, Department of Management, Aarhus University, telephone: +45 8716 5143, e-mail: liisal@mgmt.au.dk