For many years, we at LeanPath have talked about the “romance of composting.” We have found in our work on this issue that when people are putting food back into the soil rather than sending it to rot in a landfill, they often think they have checked the box or closed the loop on addressing wasted food within their organization. This tends to translate into a feeling that they don’t need to worry about food waste prevention strategies since they are already composting. And our hypothesis has always been that they may even become waste complacent since they know that the waste is ending up in a “good place.”
A recent study from the University of Ohio has confirmed our hypothesis. Researchers examined a group of 266 students, staff and Columbus residents—with random groupings either receiving information related to food waste or not. During the study, which took place during a buffet-style meal provided by the researchers, the participants were allowed take as much food as they wanted, but sharing and doggie bags were not permitted. The researchers then weighed each diner’s tray at the end of the meal to measure how much food had been left on the plates.
Researchers provided a portion of the participant group with educational cards on the negative impact of food waste and told them their wasted food would be going to a landfill. This group wasted 77% less food than another group that was not provided with any information on food waste. These results are very encouraging in terms of confirming that information and awareness of the issue can indeed lead to significant behavior change.
Another portion of the study group was given the same information on food waste as the other group, but was informed that their wasted food was going to be composted rather than sent to landfill. This messaging highlighted that positive impact of composting in terms of reducing methane emissions and nourishing the soil. The alarming results with this group: they wasted just as much food as the group that did not receive any information or education around food waste.
Researcher Brian Roe was quoted about the results, speaking to the implications they may have to foodservice institutions:
“There are many new and innovative approaches being proposed to reduce food waste and to minimize its environmental impact. However, there exists little thought about whether various approaches are complementary or competitive,” he said. “This study is one of the few to consider how various approaches might interact.”
Implications for Foodservice Operations
So what does this mean for our clients and the foodservice community at large? It certainly causes us to think about what messages we are putting in front of both our employees and customers. It stands to reason that if consumers waste more when they know food is being composted, this is likely to hold true with kitchen staff as well.
Food waste education is imperative. While composting keeps food out of landfills (a definitive positive), it does not address all the negative upstream environmental impacts associated with getting that food to the kitchen. Think of all of the resources wasted to produce, transport, and cook that food. If we reframe the issue and solutions, the results could be markedly different.
Messaging and signage should be carefully considered. Further, we must address the total issue—from root cause analysis of why food is being wasted in the first place (prevention), to donating edible excess, to energy production and feeding soil. Not all food waste solutions are created equal, and we must prioritize actions based on the greatest impact. (Reminder: the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy is a great tool for this.)
What are you finding in your kitchens? If you are composting, do you think it’s making people more waste complacent? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.