Food waste hierarchy helps to tackle the wicked problem of food waste

Food waste is related to some of the biggest challenges facing the world today, including climate change, hunger and poverty, and the sustainability of agriculture and oceans. A global “Stop Food Waste Day” takes place on April 28 to raise awareness of the causes and consequences of food waste, and to encourage consumers, businesses, and other major players to reduce the amount of food thrown away. We, at Bioska, work closely with biowaste, including food waste. The starting point for us is that food must be used primarily as food and what is inevitably left over must be utilized in the most valuable way, such as in earthworks or as biogas. 

In the spirit of the Stop Food Waste Day, we interviewed Elina Närvänen, Associate professor in services and retailing in Tampere University, who leads the research group “Wastebusters”, focusing on food waste and circular economy. Elina unwraps the story of food waste ‘from field to table’ and tells us how we all can contribute to the restoration of the value of the food.

Elina, first of all, what should we all understand about food waste?

Elina: When talking about food waste, it is good to recognize that waste occurs throughout the food chain, so to speak, from field to table. The production chain is long, and many different factors contribute to the fact that edible food is thrown away. In primary production, for example, it may be unprofitable for a farmer to harvest the entire crop if he does not receive adequate compensation. Also, pests and natural phenomena can have an impact.

In shops, food is lost because demand cannot be predicted well enough and, on the other hand, the Western consumer is accustomed to an abundant selection and the freshest possible products. Standards set by the food industry for the quality, shape and appearance of products can also prevent fruits and vegetables from ending up for sale. In restaurants, especially buffet meals and large portion sizes can produce unnecessary wastage.

At home, losses occur primarily because of the urgency and unpredictability of everyday life, not because consumers consciously want to throw food away. Waste is linked to many everyday routines, and its occurrence is influenced by family mealtimes, hobbies and activities outside home as well as planning and storing the food purchases. Some consumers also interpret ‘best before’ markings too rigorously and throw away edible food unnecessarily early, just to be on the safe side.

Globally, 1/3 of edible food ends up being lost. According to the Natural Resources Institute Finland, households in Finland waste approx. 20–25 kilograms of food per person, every year. How could we reduce such a large amount?

Elina: A food waste hierarchy can help us in this work. The idea is simple: priority is given to solutions in which food ends up primarily for human consumption, secondarily for animal consumption, and only then can food be processed into something else, for example, biofuel. It is important that when innovating new solutions, we are not primarily creating new demand for food waste as a raw material but giving priority to preventing the food waste in the first place.

There has long been an effort to influence people’s attitudes towards sustainable consumption by raising awareness of the problem. However, according to research, a so-called intention-action gap exists, i.e., people do not act in accordance with their values ​​and attitudes in their daily lives. Food waste is a good example of this, because who would really want to throw food away? And yet the problem exists. That is why awareness raising is important, yes, but it would be even more important to influence everyday routines and social norms.

Consumers can be persuaded to change their daily routines, for example by providing them with concrete tips and tools, such as waste recipes or mobile apps, to make it easier to plan their food purchases in advance. Recently, a wide variety of food waste restaurants and online stores have entered the market, as well as products made only from the surplus of the food industry.

Generally accepted social norms can then be influenced, for example, by communicating the importance of reducing food waste, as well as promoting the surplus food products as trendy and innovative. As one example, buying discounted “red products” has become a hip sustainability act.

You work as a researcher at Tampere University and lead the Wastebusters research group. What is currently “hot” in food waste research?

Elina: In recent years, research on food waste has shifted from defining and understanding the problem itself and measuring the waste towards finding and evaluating solutions. Currently, one interesting research topic is the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food waste. Preliminary research shows that, at least in some countries, household food waste would have decreased with more time spent at home. It will also be really interesting to see the effects of the increasing purchase of food online.

In the Wastebusters research group, we are currently exploring, among other things, how different social and technological innovations can help reduce food waste, and how different pioneering companies and social media influencers could contribute to the circular economy.

What kind of greetings would you like to send to Bioska’s users on a Stop Food Waste Day?

An individual consumer and a household can do a lot! You can prevent food waste by planning your weekly menu in advance and buying only the products you need. You can be proud of an empty fridge at the end of the week! You should make good use of the freezer by storing food there rather than in the refrigerator, where it spoils faster. And when food waste sometimes inevitably occurs, you should definitely sort it into biowaste. If you want to reduce the food waste of your own household, you could start by monitoring the amount of waste and, for example, weigh the weekly biowaste. Measuring a waste alone can provide the motivation to reduce it. You should also share the best tips with others, for example on social media.

Get to know the Wastebusters research group

Read more about the Stop Food Waste Day

Bioska – For sustainable daily life