New Report: Food waste and kitchen practices: implications for policy and intervention

pdf-iconFood waste report – nexus at home

doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.23212.56960

This report, developed for and in consultation with Defra, is one of four reports introducing a new approach to understanding the role of everyday household practices in domestic resource consumption and addressing the policy challenges this presents. To demonstrate this ‘change points’ approach this report focuses on one such topic: household food waste. Reducing food waste has been a major UK policy concern for a decade. It has an important role to play in meeting future food demand while minimising environmental impact. Households account for 70 per cent of post-farm-gate food waste; reducing household food waste is therefore a key challenge for food policy. This report synthesises evidence to help understand how food ends up being discarded in home kitchens.

Existing responses seek to implement the waste hierarchy – prioritising prevention over other forms of waste management – primarily through a voluntary, partnership-based approach rather than through legislation. There is significant variation both at a local authority level (especially within England) and between the four countries of the UK. Typical interventions include:

  • Separate food waste collections – diverting from landfill to composting or energy recovery; provision varies from half of all households in England to near-universal coverage in Wales
  • Brokering voluntary agreements – Courtauld 2025 brings together businesses, NGOs and public agencies in working towards a 20 per cent reduction in food waste from 2015 to 2025
  • Campaigns focused on households and consumers – the Love Food Hate Waste campaign provides online recipes and advice, supports local programmes of events and trains groups of volunteers to pass on waste reduction messages via their social networks

Here we present a new approach, tracing numerous ‘change points’ that occur in the process of carrying out routine household tasks (e.g. cooking, cleaning, laundry): moments in which resources are used up and waste is produced. In seeking to understand what influences these change points, and hence what successful intervention might entail, we draw on insights from social practice theory. This shifts attention from individual attitudes and behaviours to a systematic consideration of the multiple social, cultural and material factors that shape what people routinely do.

Our aim is to better mobilise this established body of academic work for practical use. In particular, we bring together evidence from what we term the ‘home practices’ literature: recent empirical research applying social practice theory, and related social science approaches, to the study of household sustainability issues. This provides a distinctive but complementary addition to existing responses to domestic food waste, emphasising connections between everyday sequences of activity and wider cultural, political, technological and infrastructural factors.

Crucially, food waste does not just happen because of decisions at the kitchen bin. Rather, actions throughout the stages of food provisioning – including shopping, storage, food preparation, cooking, dealing with leftovers, and clearing up – eventually lead to food being discarded, or otherwise. Insights into what shapes behaviour at these change points lead to a range of implications and recommendations for policies and intervention. Specifically, they should seek to:

  1. Understand household routines and rhythms of everyday life, ensuring interventions fit into those rhythms or look to take advantage of moments of change
  2. Think about kitchen design and the use of domestic technologies, especially how these can complement and help bring about changes in routine practices
  3. Appreciate diversity within and between households, learning from existing household responses to FOG, while anticipating any limits to transferability of successful initiatives
  4. Work with shared social norms as well as individual knowledge and attitudes
  5. Recognise that kitchen practices are shaped by wider systems – particularly systems of food provisioning (supply chains, retailers, etc.); and of food waste disposal.
  6. Collaborate across sectors, recognising the interdependencies of interventions and their resource consequences

Published by Matt Watson

A Human Geographer at the University of Sheffield, interested in how everyday human action and social orders make each other, with implications for sustainability and wellbeing.