The Waste-Waist Dilemma

As consumer food waste has been increasing, so has the rate of food insecurity (underfed consumers) and the rate of obesity (over-fed consumers). While U.S. consumers throw out enough food each year to feed 25 million Americans, 17.5 million households were food insecure in 2013, and more than two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Despite efforts to reduce food waste, insecurity and obesity, these three factors remain prevalent across the globe.

These paradoxes of food waste, insecurity and obesity raise a larger question about food acquisition. According to a 2014 report by the Food Marketing Institute, every $1000 generated by grocery retailers results in 10 pounds of food wasted. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, one out of seven Americans goes grocery shopping nearly every day, and consumers are preparing twice the amount of food they need, over-consuming by 25%, and throwing the other 25% away. This over-acquisition, consumption and disposal of food seems like a major issue with resource distribution for the food insecure. Moreover, while it could be advantageous to encourage consumers to waste less of the food on their plates, we must also consider the alternatives – including an unintended outcome of consuming more food in order to waste less of it.

My research, published recently in the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research, suggests that plate material may contribute to this waste-waist dilemma, where plate disposability can lead to increased food waste while plate permanence may produce increasing waistlines through increased consumption. One solution is to better match plate materiality to consumption goals. For example, permanent plates should be used in contexts where the goal is to consume nutrition as well as reduce food waste, as the case may be in lower income schools, elder care facilities and hospitals.

Food Waste in Schools

Food waste is particularly high among school lunchrooms, and has been increasing significantly in recent years. According to the EPA, the average American child throws away 67 pounds of lunch food per year. Coincidentally, over the past 15 years, USDA funded public school lunchrooms have been transitioning from permanent to disposable serveware due to budgetary limitations for labor, replacements, and storage. As my research demonstrated, plate disposability can affect food waste. However, the question remains as to how the effect can be attenuated.

While the superficial answer in this context is for public schools to revert back to permanent serveware, the reality is that infrastructure for public school food services do not support such a transition. A more cost-efficient method would be to make people aware of the link between disposable plates and food waste with the hope that they will take less and waste less food. Or, food cafeteria staff can serve less food on disposable plates if they know students tend to waste more. This is an important issue to address, as millions of students get their main nutrition for the day through public school foodservices. Wasted food in this context is also wasted nutrition.

Food Waste in Restaurants and Convenience Stores

The sources of food waste in restaurants vary greatly, but, on average, a restaurant can produce 150,000 pounds of garbage per year. As Americans, we frequently seek out establishments that offer more for our money, as well as enjoying the abundance of buffets and cafeteria-style eating, all of which innately generate large amounts of food waste. These types of dining establishments must constantly provide readymade food throughout the day to customers, and only innovative management and significant effort can prevent food waste from piling up daily. Plate waste is more serious in cafeterias, and especially in buffets, since customers can usually fill various plates, sometimes with the option to refill indefinitely, generating alarming amounts of unrecoverable waste. And, of course, cafeterias and buffets leave large amounts of food sitting out at all times, and, similarly to fast food restaurants, food is only left out for a limited amount of time before it is thrown away. Both real and imagined legal concerns from health regulations often prevent cafeterias and buffets from donating, in an effort to avoid any potential lawsuits. In addition, once food is put out, it cannot be donated to a food agency for health reasons. My research indicates multiple recourses for “all-you-can-eat” establishments such as making consumers aware of appropriate serving sizes and using permanent plates.

Post-consumer restaurant plate waste (the food you neither eat nor doggy bag) presents a complex waste-waist dilemma. Finishing the food served by restaurants, which often times is an over-sized portion, would reduce food waste but might lead to consuming more than one’s caloric daily requirements. Many diners who decline to doggy-bag their leftovers share the guilty experience of ordering the waiter to take the extra food away, knowing it was destined for the dumpster. I recommend restaurants actively encourage consumers to take home food remaining on their plates. Food services that utilize disposable plates should provide tightly fitting disposable covers. Signage can also encourage doggy-bagging behaviors, particularly in fast-food or to-go restaurants. All food left behind by diners should be composted by restaurant staff.

Environmental Impact of Food Waste

There is a direct link between disposable plate materials and negative environmental impact. A growing number of foodservice establishments have adopted “green,” or environmentally friendly, policies and practices in response to consumer demand for more conscientious eating. Although the meaning of the green movement might be understood in broad terms (sustainable, eco-friendly, renewable), the actual regulations for a restaurant to acquire a Green Restaurant designation are not generally known. In addition to composting and recycling plastics, glass, aluminum, cardboard, and paper, restaurants must compost pre-consumer waste, but only in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington DC, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis. While it is not required, points towards certification are also awarded for restaurants that compost post-consumer (food and packaging) waste, donate to a food bank every week, and offer smaller portions of entrees at a reduced price. The Green Restaurant designation does encourage restaurants to be less wasteful, but it does not guarantee that restaurants are reducing food waste or diverting food waste from landfills.         

Lastly, it is also important to account for negative environmental impacts of the actual plate materials. Overall, Americans throw away enough serveware each year to circle the equator 300 times. In fact, consumers who regularly use disposable serveware for lunch may generate up to 100 pounds of trash per year. Such an impact of disposable plates on landfill space must be addressed throughout the supply chain and by appealing to “green” consumers. Studies show consumers who demonstrate waste avoidance practices also demonstrate greater concern for the environment and product disposal, as well as a stronger likelihood of environmentally friendly behaviors. Further, serveware materials exist on a continuum of environmental impact (e.g., compostable, recyclable). Might plates that evoke different categorical associations, like environmental friendliness, influence wasteful behavior?


This post is part of our “Reclaim” initiative, which showcases solutions to the issue of food waste and engages our readers to take action. You can find all the posts in this initiative, as well as feature pieces, investigative stories and video, here. Follow the initiative on Twitter at #Reclaim. And if you’d like to add your own thoughts to our series, sign up here for a HuffPost blog account.  

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