The Current

4 ways we unconsciously contribute to Canada's food waste problem

Research shows consumers waste 40 per cent of food. Turns out, how we grocery shop can make a difference in reducing how much food we throw out.
The average Canadian consumer throws out an estimated 170 kg of food a year. (Shuttershock)

It's a perennial dilemma: an unknown smell coming from rotting food in the fridge. 

It's enough to make your stomach turn and as consumers, we play a significant role in Canada's global contribution to food waste.

The average Canadian consumer discards an estimated 170 kilograms of food a year, according to a recent report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an environmental agency set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Despite good intentions, Monica Labarge, an assistant professor at Queen's University, suggests it is unconscious biases that manifests into food waste when grocery shopping. 

"We don't believe that consumers are buying food with the objective of wasting it," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. Labarge is part of a team of researchers looking into how consumer behaviour results in the persistent problem of food waste.

The research traces a concept called "Squander Sequence," which describes behavioural insights into why consumers overbuy at the grocery store.

"So trying to help consumers recognize some of these biases that they have — that they're using on a daily basis — when, in reality, if they thought about how they actually consume food that they might not buy as much as they would otherwise," Labarge said. "We wanted to unpack a little bit what were some of the psychological reasons that are driving this behaviour." 

It's hard to change consumer behaviour, says researcher Monica Labarge. (Pixabay/MichaelGaida)

Here are four ways shoppers unconsciously contribute to food waste:

The planning fallacy 

When you believe you have time to make something, like a butternut squash soup, but when you get to making it, you realize it takes 45 minutes to roast the squash and never get around to doing it.

The optimism bias 

You are inspired by a new food you've never cooked with, like fennel, and think you'll find a recipe but you never look one up. Then the food spoils. 

The bulk promotion

Buying in abundance is an impulse. You buy all three limes thinking you are leaving money behind if you only take the one you need, said Labarge.

"We know consumers buy things in bulk if you cue them to do it."

The good provider syndrome

When you buy and make a lot of food because you want to feel like you're giving your children a lot of choice and several healthy options.

The reality: "One week they like bananas and the next week they don't," Labarge said, calling to mind a bunch of bananas that might make it to a freezer after several days on the table, but never get used for banana bread.

Labarge suggests unconscious biases often manifest into food waste when we go grocery shopping. (Shutterstock)

So how do you break bad habits?

It's difficult to change consumer behaviour, Labarge told Tremonti.

While there are apps to help plan and use what is already in the fridge to make meals, Labarge said making a specific list with what is needed and exactly how much can also help change the mentality when buying groceries.

"If you sit back and think about how is it that I actually use food, and then you purchase with those things in mind, then you're certainly setting yourself up for being more aware of how you consume food," she said.

"That is probably going to help reduce your food waste substantially."


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