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How and where you shop has a big impact on food waste, study reveals

We wanted to know what consumer and households are thinking and doing around food sustainability, and what frustrates them when making attempts to be more sustainable” said Professor Mary McCarthy, UCC national co-lead of a €1m EU SUSFOOD2 ERA-Net Cofund on Sustainable Food production and consumption project (SUSFOOD2). “We were particularly interested in whether the variety of food supply channels affect our food choices and whether they are helping us to become more sustainable at home.” The everyday routines of 42 householders were examined in Ireland, along with households in Sweden, Germany, Italy and Norway to see what patterns were leading to unsustainable practices in the home. 

The study reveals how food shoppers were either ‘organised’ or ‘disorganised’ in their shopping, which in turn had consequences in terms of buying, cooking, storing and disposing of their food. Organised shoppers, who write shopping lists, meal plan, stock-check cupboards, and budget control, tend to have less food waste. However, many shoppers are disorganised and usually shop based on their mood and become tempted by special offers or impulse purchases.

The research also found connections between where a consumer buys their food and how they consume their food. “Interestingly, for online food shoppers, the website or app makes shopping more structured with less opportunity to impulse buy and so less food is wasted, particularly for those shoppers who tend to be more disorganised. The ‘list’ of their usual necessities is already there waiting for them”, said fellow UCC co-lead Dr Claire O’Neill. “Whereas consumers who bought their food from more alternative food supply channels, such as online farmers markets or community supported agriculture (CSA), were generally more waste averse and went to great efforts to ensure that the food they bought was consumed by the household. They used innovative cooking practices and preservation to make use of local and seasonal produce.”  

1 million tonnes of food waste each year in Ireland  

More than 1/3 of all food is wasted worldwide, equating to 1.3 billion tonnes every year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. In Ireland, the problem is just as significant with Bord Bia reporting more than 1 million tonnes of food waste each year. From the GHG (green-house gas) emissions food waste produces to the strain it puts on already scarce resources, to the loss in our wallets - the problems that stem from food waste cannot be ignored. 

“There is a real difference between the challenges that face consumers who only shop in large supermarkets versus those who used some of the alternative food supply channels,” said Prof McCarthy, “For people who use these via alternative channels, the produce tended to be loose so there was no packaging to deal with and having direct access to farmers or local producers made consumers put a higher value on these goods so they were often more resourceful when it came to using them up.” 

“In contrast, many consumers who shop at large supermarket chains reported being frustrated with the level of plastic packaging, particularly in the fruit and vegetable category. Many over-purchase, particularly when trying to eat healthily, but often not all of this perishable produce is consumed in the household and is ultimately wasted. There were efforts made to save leftovers, or preserving some produce in the fridge or freezer, but more often than not the fridge and freezer became, a ‘coffin of decay’.” 

Retailers now need to accelerate their in-store and on-line activities to promote and enable more sustainable household food practices. This could include the reimagining of the fruit and vegetable category to deliver value for money offerings where the customer can maintain control of quantity decisions while benefiting from special offers. Retailers could also work with business activists in fore-fronting products that truly deliver on environmentally friendly. The challenge of providing a “plastic free” shopping experience is one that should be on retailers’ agendas, along with the creation of ‘learning moments’ that popularises ways to use and manage leftovers.