At one time in the human psyche, waste and wealth were symbiotic. Sharp advertising stressed “disposable” as the ultimate “must have,” implying that successful people should throw out offensive used items, almost as though having to reuse something was below their status. The invention of the garbage disposal did the same to food.
As precious as that food may have been to someone in need, it was sent hurtling down the drain. In some affluent households, not only remnants of the dinner were thrown out, but all of the paper dinnerware as well. To better understand why people have been so willing to squander food, it is important to explore the psychology of waste.
In the past, homesteading required that everyone get the most out of everything. Women canned the extra tomatoes, men whittled tools out of leftover wood, children wore flour-sack diapers and leftover food wasn’t wasted—it was composted. Lea Bowden from Indiana writes in The Countryside & Small Stock Journal that she remembers seeing her father squeezing ketchup from foil packets into a bottle.
Yet today, it is hard to imagine anyone conserving his or her ketchup — or any other food for that matter — with the painstaking care of Bowden’s father. Food waste, in particular, appears to be acceptable to most people today. That may be because they haven’t been taught to care or because food waste isn’t a part of social concern in the movement towards ecological and social responsibility.
While the current adult population is becoming aware of the need to conserve, they often continue to waste in the name of safety or legality. For instance, the amount of food wasted at almost any public school in the US is staggering. Leftovers are tossed into trash bins rather than offered to shelters or to families in need, because the districts fear lawsuits. Many are concerned that transferring cooked food may jeopardize safety, and the logistics of keeping food safe are not only costly but also risky.
While these worries are legitimate, adhering to sound food safety procedures would allow schools to donate prepared food without issue. Moreover, such concerns don’t preclude other options. For example, Japan has found an interesting solution to the problem of food waste in one of its cities. The city composted 64 tons of school lunch wastes, then farmers used the compost to grow food and that food became the school lunches. Other countries could at least do well by following this example rather than throwing away leftovers outright.
According to WasteCap Wisconsin’s Business Food Waste Briefing Paper, “one fourth of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste.” Food waste is the second largest portion of the American waste stream. Food recalls, although sometimes necessary and critical to the well-being of citizens, have been one of the catalysts for waste. Such recalls are emblematic of two broad psychological tendencies contributing to massively wasteful behavior. First, the primacy of concern with profit over quality and safety in food production; and second, the mindset that there isn’t any consequence to just throwing away food that might be suspect.
Although popular awareness of sustainability and environmental conservation ideas encourages many to shun “throw away” habits, large-scale food waste nevertheless continues. There seems to be less concern with food waste as opposed to other types of waste, perhaps because little attention is paid to the scale of this problem compared to global warming or other environmental headlines. However, it may be that the root of the problem lies in our minds, in people’s ways of thinking about the production and consumption of food. A fundamental psychological shift is needed to change the focus of food production from short-term profit to long-term social responsibility, and to shift the individual consumer’s relationship with food from one of careless convenience to mindful frugality.