Food waste in your fridge

Why do we buy food, that we end up throwing away?
21 January 2020

Interview with 

Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, Anglia Ruskin University




So far we’ve discussed limiting food waste in production and distribution, but a major contributor to food waste is what we throw away at home. So why do we buy stuff that we end up throwing away? Katie Haylor and Chris Smith spoke to consumer psychologist Cathrine Jansson-Boyd from Anglia Ruskin University. First up, Katie asked, what can studying the way we think of food tell us about why so much of it ends up in the bin?

Cathrine - To start off with, we can get a good understanding of perhaps why are we buying it in the first place. So if we think we get a good bargain, buy one get one free, then if we think that's important, then we're more likely to buy two. But however at home we may not use it and it might end up in the bin because we bought something just because we thought it was a bargain to start off with.

Katie - So are we talking about shops' behaviour, or are we talking about consumer behaviour, or both?

Cathrine - We're talking about both. So consumers of course in theory should be in charge of why they're purchasing something in the first place. But it's never as simple as that, as marketing, shops and so forth know all the tricks of the trades to try to entice you to buy more because it's more profitable if you do, of course.

Katie - What could, or can, or are, retailers doing to help minimize food that they are wasting potentially, and then food that we might be wasting at home?

Cathrine - Well if they wanted to help us to change our behaviours - because that's really what we're looking at, we need to rethink why we're buying things - a good start would be stop using packaging for fruits and vegetables, which has expiration dates on. Because that tells consumers you shouldn't use something after a certain date, when actually often in fact it's still perfectly useable. Um, but we don't look at them, instead we look at the date. So if we could change that, that would be a good starting point as one example.

Chris - Can we get rid of best before dates or is there a legal reason why they have to be there, Catherine? Cause I must admit I've met people, even members of my own family, a yogurt will go one day over this magic best before date and then magically they've decided that's now inedible and it goes in the bin. You say look, come on 12 hours. Do you think it's really made a difference? And they chuck it. If we could chuck away best before dates. I think the psychology wouldn't be there to chunk the food away would it? But are they there for a reason? Are they there for legal reasons?

Cathrine - They're not actually there for legal reasons. They are there because they're meant to act as a guideline. Now, I think a better system would be to say perhaps display by dates in the shops so the shop knows "now we've got three or four days" or whatever, but then consumers should use a bit of common sense. Of course, if you're buying fish and it smells really badly, then no one's going to want to eat it and I understand that. But often again, you can actually taste test things even in your own home, to see whether or not it's still edible. It's a bit of a risky game perhaps at times, but you can use common sense and if you use common sense, hopefully you won't put it in the bin, you'll still use it. If you get consumers to use common sense, feel empowered, that they're taking charge of things they can save money and money is something that consumers quite often like to save all fairness.

Katie - Is part of the problem our expectation when it comes to food? Perhaps we expect certain, especially fruit and veg to look a certain way. I know I'm awful, I'm really picky with apples. I do judge some apples before I pick it up as to whether it looks like an apple I would expect. Is it the right colour, is it the right shape? That kind of thing. Are any shops getting this right, do you think?

Cathrine - I am not so sure that they are getting it right because we are trained as consumers to like the aesthetics of anything we purchase, whether this be food or anything else. And the reality is it's not about taste, but we are now so conditioned into actually believing it has to look a certain way, that we won't, like you said, we'll look at an apple and judge is this really an apple? And that's where food waste often starts, because they actually throw away tons of fruit and vegetables because they don't look the part. So if we could change and go back to "it's fine to have something that perhaps looks a little wonky. It doesn't taste any different", then that would be a very good start in terms of reducing food waste.

Katie - So once you've got your food, you've made your decision, you've got at home, asking for a friend, do you have any tips on organization? Because there's a load of stuff in the fridge. Sometimes things go to the back that should be at the front. I think I could do a bit better when it comes to organizing stuff in priority order of eating it.

Chris - You should come and look at my fridge at home!

Katie - Cathrine, can you give us both some tips?

Cathrine - Well again, this is often to do with time. You don't want to rush. So people often, again, they're rushed in the supermarket, they come home and they just kind of jam everything in wherever it fits. And that's where people go wrong because you can't then see what's what, and you need to kind of stack them a bit like the supermarkets do. The ones that you think is going to expire first needs to go at the front. And again, if you want to be very well organized when you're actually purchasing things in the supermarket, you write them down on your shopping list that you presumably have with you, that tells you exactly what you're going to buy and say this will expire on such and such date. So if you then had decided to have your mac and cheese on the Monday and the cheese is going to expire on the Tuesday, maybe move that and move something else up to the Monday that is actually expiring before so that you have the list in parallel with what you're purchasing.


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