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Food waste: Understanding the motivations and how we can solve the problem

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Wed, 9 Jun 2021
Food waste: Understanding the motivations and how we can solve the problem
Fruits, Vegetables, and Flowers on a Table

New research examines the motivations behind household food waste, and provides practical suggestions for reducing food waste.

One third of all food produced in the world for human consumption is lost or wasted, and this waste is responsible for an estimated 8-10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, this food waste also happens in our very own homes.

Wasting edible food is bad, so why do we still do it? Associate Professor Pengji Wang and Dr Breda McCarthy from James Cook University, together with Dr Ariadne Kapetanaki from University of York, set out to understand how morals impact food waste behaviours, and investigate the factors that trigger these morals.

The study focused on Singapore and Australia – two distinct cultures whose citizens tend to generate high food waste. Australian households throw away around 102 kg of food per capita each year, while in Singapore an estimated 80 kg of food is wasted per capita annually.

As morals are influenced by cultural, institutional and societal factors, it is important to consider how societal norms shape morals and sustainable consumption practices. By incorporating the ‘good provider’ social norm – also known as the desire to show hospitality and provide plenty of food to one’s family and friends – in the study, the research showed that people carrying this social norm are more likely to purchase and prepare excess food that is at risk of being thrown away.

As such, while we may typically feel guilty, uncomfortable, or bothered about food waste, good providers will likely prioritise the well-being of their family guests and believe food waste to be unavoidable.

Associate Professor Wang says to further minimise food waste coming from ‘good provider’ practices, community-based action-learning programmes on how to deal with excessive food could be arranged.

“Such programmes could be particularly useful at specific times of the year before special occasions, because that is when good providers tend to prepare a lot of food,” she said.

Co-author Dr Breda McCarthy says we could also promote different ways to provide for our families that are less likely to result in wasted food, while still appealing to the moral norm of being a good provider.

“This may include creating awareness of healthy eating and purchasing higher-quality food in smaller quantities,” she said.

Associate Professor Wang further recommends, “Social marketing programmes could link reduced food waste with a positive social identity in order to counteract the notion of conspicuous waste, according to which food waste might be a signal of wealth and power.”

This understanding of food waste behaviour and food waste solutions can help address the environmental consequences of food waste (through wasting energy and water, and emitting greenhouse gases) as well as pave the way to a circular economy.


Wang, Pengji, McCarthy, Breda and Kapetanaki, Ariadne (Accepted: 2021) To Be Ethical or to Be Good? The Impact of 'Good Provider' and Moral Norms on Food Waste Decisions in Two Countries. Global Environmental Change.

Check out Associate Professor Pengji Wang’s staff and research profiles.

Discover further information on areas of research and research strength at James Cook University in Singapore.


Associate Professor Pengji Wang [email protected]
Media: Pinky Sibal [email protected]