In this next sections, we present findings from our observations, interviews and survey.
We observed variety in users’ everyday disposal habits. While all participants had trash bins, only half of the participants had recycling bins. One participant made use of composting. We categorized our findings into three theme areas: (1) methods used to determine if a food was good; (2) non-wasteful behaviors; and (3) habits associated with food.
- Methods used to determine if a food was good
Participants used a variety of methods to sort through food items and decide which ones to throw away. These methods included visual inspection, touching, tasting and/or smelling the item, and checking the “sell by”/”best by” date.
- Alison checked dates and labels first, and followed them strictly (with the exception of Vegemite, about which she explained, “In Australia, we say Vegemite never goes bad. It’s just salt.”). If the food item did not contain a “best by” date, she would decide to keep or throw away an item based on how the item looked, and the likelihood of her using the item in the near future. Among our observation analysis of non-wasteful interactions, non-”expired” foods (based on date) were a large part.
- Paula froze foods if she noticed the items would not be used within a certain amount of time, in order to prevent them from spoiling and needing to be thrown away.
- Yolanda stated that she would "sometimes throw things away based on what they look like. If it's meat and it looks bad I'll throw it away.” She went on to explain that she sometimes keeps items that are frozen but does not keep leftover refrigerator items for very long.
- Paula made her decision on which fruits to keep or compost based on her tactile feel of the different fruits in her pantry. If they were soft or squishy, they would be composted. As Paula composted, foods disposed of in that manner were not classified as waste. Paula also noted that she uses the compost material in her personal garden.
- There were several instances that dealt with the familiarity of certain food items. Alison did not need to check the eggs because she was highly familiar with the date of purchase (weekly purchase). Melinda did not need to check an item wrapped in tin foil, she was familiar with the contents and the date it was cooked, and immediately sorted it as waste.
When it came to actually throwing away food items, the level of waste determined by physical inspection was roughly equal to the level of waste determined by examining a food item’s “best by” date. Most of the wasted items were dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and prepared/home-cooked items.
- Non-wasteful behaviors
We organized non-wasteful behaviors into three major clusters: Compost, Returned Food Items, and Dates. For each data point in these clusters, the food items were not destined for waste: the food was either returned for later consumption based on some attribute (smell, appearance, etc.) or an expiration date in the future, or saved for use in composting. The most non-waste resulted from the returned food items cluster.
- Habits associated with food
Our observations and analysis also created clusters of participant comments (that participants offered up without prompt) around their food habits- particularly eating habits, shopping habits, and waste habits. In the observations, participants commented mostly on their eating habits. Alison said she makes a frittata every week for “expired vegetable day.” She explained, ”we use any vegetables that are about to go bad.” When Melinda spotted the near expired date on a package of chicken while cleaning out her fridge, she said, “Uh oh… I guess this is for dinner tonight.” Most of our participants had food preparation habits that fell within the following categories: sorting items, preparing lists or cleaning out pantries.
For a sequence model of a participant’s sequence cleaning out their fridge, see appendix D.
We grouped our interview findings into four themes; we converted the themes to spectrums of characteristics and behaviors to help segment our users for personas:
- Consumerism. This theme focused on how much guilt the participant displayed because of the buying and selling society they live in.
- Conscious of personal waste - activities supporting participant’s understanding of their own household waste.
- Busy lifestyle. In this theme, we determined the magnitude of pace of lifestyle on choices surrounding household waste.
- Preparedness. In this theme, we focused on the amount of effort the participant expressed towards generating less waste in the household.
Each of the concepts is explained below.
Each of the concepts is explained below.
A regular theme throughout all the interviews was the participants’ attitude towards overspending and expressions of guilt about wasteful and overly-consumer-focused lifestyles. For example Marie told us, “I think it is a problem because we are a consumer society. We are taught to buy in excess but not save.” Other participants mentioned overspending and buying based on sales as components of their food waste.
Conscious of personal waste
In multiple interviews, participants expressed varied level of awareness about how they personally waste on a regular basis. When asked about his waste habits, Brandon stated, “Uneaten food is a waste of money and food that someone could have used. But we’re all guilty of throwing away uneaten food. It’s unfortunate.” Other participants acknowledged buying food items that they may not necessarily use. Jean was a Costco shopper, enjoying Costco products’ quality despite the products’ tendency to be in bulk portions, which is not ideal for her and her husband, explaining, “even if we ate salad everyday, we couldn’t get through a tub of Costco spinach.”
Another persistent theme was discussion about how very busy participants’ lives were; they noted that this contributed to their lack of time to appropriately plan their grocery shopping and their meals. For example Jean related, “I always try to cook for two days. If I’m cooking it’s gotta last at least two days (for self and husband)”. The fast pace of the everyday lifestyles of the participants seemed to affect their choices surrounding cooking and planning meals; all participants calculated time into their choices.
We found that the extent to which certain participants took action to reduce food waste was affected by planning. Jean purchases cheese in large quantities from Costco, however she opts for sliced cheese, because she has found she can easily portion it out when she returns home, and put the extra portions in the freezer right away to preserve them.
We entered the survey with a directional hypothesis that people with fast-paced lifestyles show more food waste behavior. We found a statistical correlation with lifestyle pace and three other questions focused on food waste behavior.
We next assessed the responses to all questions for the entire pool of respondents and found the following themes:
Better meal planning as leading food waste prevention method
For the multiple-choice questions for the overall group, 67.2% of respondents said they threw away “some” food last week. 82.7% (the highest percentage for this question) of respondents overall indicated “better meal planning” would be a “very useful” method in preventing food waste. This percentage was 87.5% for respondents who indicated they “somewhat or strongly disagree that food waste is a problem in their home.” For respondents who indicated they somewhat or strongly agree food waste is a problem in their home, 83.8% indicated better meal planning would be “very useful.” The next most highly-rated method was “freezing food before it expires” (67.3% of overall respondents rated as “very useful”).
Strategies for using food that is going (or is about to go) bad
Sixty of 67 respondents gave examples of how they have used food that was going or about to go bad. Common methods that emerged were: using overripe bananas for banana bread, cooking wilting vegetables in other dishes (making soup, making stock, sautéing [one respondent mentioned “with lots of garlic,” or stir-frying), eating the food immediately, cooking meat (that was either expired or just about to) immediately and freezing it, and cutting out the parts of foods (produce and cheese) that exhibit mold or other bad spots, and eating the remainder of the food.
We coded the open-ended responses to the survey and found:
V. Discussions / Conclusions
- Most throw away food because it has gone bad (not primarily for safety concern)
When it came to “the primary reason you throw away food,” of 52 respondents, 69% (36 respondents) mentioned because the food has gone bad, 13% noted food safety concerns. Another repeated response included not finding the time to get to cooking the food.
- Most feel guilt about personal food waste behavior
69% of respondents expressed feeling guilty when they throw away food. One person responded, “bad for people who can’t afford food, and annoyed at myself for wasting money.” Another said, “guilty that I didn’t use it and that I made or bought too much--I feel wasteful.”
- Date labels are not leading determinant for tossing food
The most common attribute assessed when determining whether food had gone bad was smell, with 80% of respondents indicating using this focus, some alongside other assessments. Smell was followed closely by visual appearance (75.4% of respondents mentioned this). Only 35.4% mentioned using date labels for their determinations. [Interestingly, 73.4% of respondents responded to an earlier question indicating that “use by” date labels were “somewhat important” to “very important” in determining whether food is safe to consume.]
We also analyzed the survey through two other lenses: pace of lifestyle (which was the central focus of our hypothesis), and income (annual household income level). We wanted to see if there were any trends between respondents in these differing categories (Appendix K). Our analysis through these lenses was focused solely on the one type of categorization, not any intersections of the two (i.e. we were not examining whether people who make 40K annually and lead slow-paced lives were behaving differently than people who make 80K and lead fast-paced lives). One observation of the survey responses shows that zero participants in the +35K income group indicated “always” making produce decisions based on seasonal availability. In this same group, zero participants indicated throwing away “a lot” of uneaten food in the previous week.
The purpose of our project was to develop an understanding of food waste in US households. The United States faces a large-scale problem in trying to reduce food waste. In this study, we focused on household behaviors that surround purchasing, storage, and sorting (waste versus non-waste) of food items. All participants in our study were aware that food spoilage is a growing financial and environmental problem. Most had an awareness of how much they contribute to the food waste problem, and most have unsuccessfully tried a variety of methods and strategies to reduce waste or eliminate it altogether.
We identified several common behaviors among our observation participants. First, most food waste resulted from refrigerated items going bad. Most of the wasted items were dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and prepared/home-cooked items. Participants determined what to throw away by physical methods that included touch, sight, smell; visual inspection was used the most often. Of the four participants in our observations, only one participant was sorting items between waste and compost. Total observed interactions totaled 56, 16 of those resulting in waste, and the remaining 40 resulting in no waste (compost or items returned).
We found date labels to be less important to people overall than we assumed. Roughly a third of survey respondents noted it as one aspect that they look at when tossing food, but it was never the only aspect.
Our interview participants reinforced the theme of feeling guilt at personal, wasteful behavior, despite being aware of their own habits’ likelihood to create waste (for example: buying food at bulk-food store Costco, when you’re only shopping for two people). The interviews’ expanded look (over the observations) at shopping and cooking created a more holistic view of people’s lives and how a technology to support them would need to behave. Many people mentioned their busy schedules lead to their lack of planning, lack of cooking, and/or other habits that help food go uneaten. Our potential technological solution would need to address the weak spots in people’s meal or shopping planning in a minimally-invasive, low-input-required way in order to become a habitual feature in users’ lives. Some ideas include a log to reference recent shopping trips or fridge cleans, alerts to clean food storage areas, a recipe resource with easy saving of shopping lists to allow the user to do their shopping trip without having to record all the ingredients required. Our solution could also employ a positive tone overall to emphasize the all-around positive value of limiting food waste (and the guilt that comes with it). Gamification may be successful with this angle.
B. Limitations and Future Work
In our observations, we suspected that some of the participants may have pre-sorted items or cleaned the food storage areas prior to the observations. Additionally, we observed a very small number of participants, so our findings may not generalize to a larger audience. We also felt it would be helpful to observe these users’ cleaning methods over a longer period of time. By observing our users over a longer period we can make note of changes in ways they discard food. In the future, it would be helpful if we cut down the time commitment for our participants. We noticed that a lot of the participants were short on time due to full schedules. By streamlining the observation, interview and survey processes/questions, thus cutting down the time requirement, we may experience an increase in those who want to participant in our study. Also, it can be argued that shorter interviews and surveys could lead to more truthful answers. Participants may try to rush through their session by giving answers they believe will satisfy the interviewer.
We also discovered that the varied income among our participants may have been a factor that impacted our findings. That is, we suspect that the fact that some participants purchased fresh organic produce that spoiled quicker might have been associated with higher incomes. Conversely, we suspect that our participants with lower incomes tended to buy conventional produce that utilize waxes and pesticides that prolong the lifespan of the produce. Other issues of income may also be related to food waste; e.g. those with higher incomes may also have the opportunity to buy fresh food items multiple times throughout the month, enabling them to be more wasteful, while those who are less affluent may have more canned goods and foods that can be kept for months on end before use. In general, a wealthy consumer would be more inclined to discard perfectly edible food than someone on a lower income who needs to be more careful about how they spend their money. Future work would give us an opportunity to ask questions that will explore other relevant trends we hypothesize might be impacted by income.
For the survey question Please indicate how useful you think each of the following steps is in preventing food waste, we have survey takers rate the option of ‘donate leftover food.’ However, we never define ‘donate.’ If we specify that we mean “donating canned goods to food pantries” that would give the question clarity, instead of requiring the participant to rely on his or her personal definition of donate. In the future we would also alter the exclusionary question of how much uneaten food did you throw away last week. We would change ‘last week’ to ‘within the past 2 weeks.’ The original wording of this question eliminated 15 participants from answering crucial food waste related questions because they stated that they did not throw away any food during that time. Just because someone may have had one waste-free week does not mean that they don’t produce food waste at all. By extending the time period in question from one week to two weeks we could obtain more responses for the survey’s food-waste-related questions, and get greater insight into our respondent group breakdowns by income, lifestyle pace, and more.