Why is cutting food waste so difficult?

Posted in: Food, Sustainability, University of Bath

October 16th is World Food Day, shining a light on the UN’s desire to create a world where by 2030 there is zero hunger.  Achieving this ambition will require a significant reduction in food waste. In this piece, guest blogger Trewin Restorick, CEO of environmental charity Hubbub, discusses the challenge of reducing food waste, and describes some of their initiatives to tackle the problem. Trewin will be a speaker at the Food Waste Realities event taking place at the University of Bath on 16th October. 


In the UK alone it is estimated that £7.3 million of food waste was binned in 2015 – 60% of which was avoidable.  The cost of this food waste for a typical family adds up to a staggering £700 a month.

With people able to save money and do their bit for the environment it would seem a no brainer that households would do all they can to cut food waste, but this is not the case.  Indeed, last year food waste from households slightly increased.  Why is this?

One of the main reasons is that most households simply don’t believe they are wasting food.  All those small actions of throwing away uneaten food, discarding mushy salad bags or chucking sprouting potatoes don’t add up in our minds to a big impact – even though the evidence suggests otherwise.

If people do realise they are throwing away food, there are a number of other factors that prevent change.  There is growing evidence that, despite the plethora of cooking programmes, we are losing culinary skills and this reduces our ability to create meals from the bits and pieces left in our fridges.  People are highly confused by food labelling resulting in food being thrown away that is good to eat, while safety concerns mean that food that could be frozen is also discarded.

Fast-paced lifestyles make planning difficult – we may have the best intentions when buying that healthy salad bag but in a busy social week there is a high chance that we didn’t quite get around to eating it.  We also want to make sure that friends and family are well-fed meaning that we over buy and over cook.  This is particularly true at times like Christmas when food waste spikes.

What then can be done to create change?  This is a question that the charity Hubbub has been seeking to address over the past four years.  Given the complexity of the challenge we have realised that academically proven behaviour change techniques are required and have been experimenting with different approaches.  Some have been successful and others less so: here is what we have learned.


The Smart Bin

We wanted to see what happened if people saw what food they were throwing away and the cost of it.  Smart bins were put into a six households in Derbyshire.  The impact was immediate with an average 67% cut in food waste in four months.  Confronted with hard data, households quickly changed habits and buying patterns.  Unfortunately, this intervention proved intrusive for households and was expensive. So whilst this was an effective approach, it is currently not scalable.


Seasonal Campaigns

Food waste increases during times of celebration such as Halloween and Christmas.  Hubbub has discovered that campaigns specifically targeted at this time of year are effective.  Our #PumpkinRescue campaign highlighted that 18,000 tonne of pumpkins are thrown away each year at Halloween and provided simple recipes to help people avoid this.  The #FestiveFreeze messaging encouraged people to freeze leftovers at Christmas rather than bin them.


Hubbub's #pumpkinrescue campaign


Cooking skills

The loss of cooking skills is a concern and Hubbub has sought to address this by promoting inter-generational cooking classes.  The #KitchenLove campaign has built two community kitchens and provides lessons enabling grandparents to share cooking skills with their grandchildren.


Community Action

Bringing communities together has been found to reduce food waste.  Community Fridges  collect perishable food from retailers for redistribution to local households.  Already 36 Community Fridges have been established, each saving over half a tonne of food a month.  These Fridges have become social hubs encouraging people to share ideas and knowledge.


Date Labels

Research has shown there is significant confusion about what food labels mean, particularly ‘Best Before’ resulting in edible food being thrown away.  Gradually retailers are removing these labels and are starting to educate their customers about the meaning of different labels.


Hubbub’s work has proved that it is possible to reduce food waste through targeted and concerted interventions.  To date, this knowledge has not been brought together into a coherent campaign backed by all the key stakeholders such as retailers, manufacturers and local authorities.

Testing the impact of this long-term strategic approach has just begun in Norfolk and Suffolk with a #FoodSavvy campaign running across both counties.  It will be interesting to see whether this approach works and it is to be hoped that World Food Day will see more campaigns like this develop.


Trewin Restorick, along with Jeff Davison, Distributive Sales Manager at Unilever and Tim Rawlings, Project Officer at B&NES Council, will be part of a panel discussing ways to reduce food waste at Food Waste Realities. This is the launch event of the Big Picture Challenge, a 5-week challenge for students who will work in teams across departments to generate and test ideas to tackle food waste.

Header image by rawpixel

Posted in: Food, Sustainability, University of Bath


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