Using the Lessons of Lockdown to Reduce Household Food Waste

Dr Gulbanu Kaptan
Associate Professor in Behavioural Decision Making

During the first national lockdown of 2020, self-reported levels of food waste in the UK fell by 34%, the sharpest fall on record – a rare bright spot in the pandemic.

Issues of packaging, food waste and sustainable practices are complex. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations 1.3bn tonnes of food is wasted globally each year. In the UK, we throw away 6.6m tonnes of household food waste a year, almost three quarters is food we could have eaten.

However, during the first national lockdown of 2020, self-reported levels of food waste in the UK fell by 34%, the sharpest fall on record – a rare bright spot in the pandemic.

While self-reported levels of food waste did increase from this low point in the following months, careful food shopping and creative cooking contributed to this initial fall.

Now a new national research project has been set up to understand that positive change, and to use those insights to help people to waste less food when the pandemic ends.

I, along with colleagues at the University, and with support from two leading environmental organisations – WRAP and Zero Waste Scotland – will examine food waste during and after lockdown periods and develop interventions to support sustainable consumer behaviour.

The 18-month research project has been awarded funding of £328,000, including a grant of £268,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

"The 18-month research project has been awarded funding of £328,000, including a grant of £268,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19."

Research published by WRAP shows significant changes in behaviour and a reduction in the self-reported level of food waste in the first national lockdown period. While we understand some of this behaviour, we want broaden our knowledge of why the changes came about, and how we can build on this to help people prevent more food going to waste in future.

We are particularly interested in the determinants of behaviour: for instance, what impact do our emotions have on wasting food, and what are the personal goals and values around how we buy and eat food?

The project will develop interventions to help support households in wasting less food. To support this, around 1,500 people from across the UK will take part in a survey looking at how they choose, store, manage and cook food. Approximately 30 people will also take part in more detailed interviews and later be asked to keep household diaries of food waste.

The findings from our research will be used by WRAP’s and Zero Waste Scotland’s teams to develop behaviour-change interventions and WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign.

Wasting food has huge environmental impact in terms of wasting resources required to grow, transport, refrigerate and package food, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions

The importance of doing all we can to prevent food waste cannot be overstated. We must protect critical water resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and repair our global food system. As Love Food Hate Waste Campaign quite simply puts it “for the planet, and for your purse”.