Photo of a person looking at their fridge wondering why they are wasting food

Why we don’t realise we’re wasting food

14 Mar 22

As a nation, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of climate change and are adopting more sustainable ways of living to combat it. While we can’t all be installing wind turbines in our back gardens or be planting trees on our lunch break, managing our food waste is a simple yet important action that we can all do daily to tackle climate change.

If you ask those living in Scotland today, just over half say they throw away hardly any or no food [1]. However, this contradicts the research which shows Scottish households throw away 600,000 tonnes of food waste a year, that’s the weight of about 2000 Kelpies statues. Which leads to the big question, who is wasting all this food?

Don’t get us wrong, there are industries at fault too but there is often more that we can do than we allow ourselves to believe. As a result of our conscious and unconscious choices, we are often blissfully ignorant to the food we are wasting in our own homes, all while proclaiming “I don’t waste food, that must be other people”.

In this article, we’ll explore the psychological barriers to reducing food waste we each have and help you take the first steps to overcome them and move towards living waste-free.

Relationship advice

It’s a sad reality, but we often underestimate our role in generating food waste as well as overestimating our efforts to avoid it. When faced with environmental issues, many point the finger at corporations and governments as the guilty parties and don’t understand how their contribution can be on par. But, in the case of food waste, 70% comes from our own kitchens and cupboards.

This is in part because our relationship with food has changed. Shopping has become so convenient we are now so far removed from the start and end of our food’s journey that we’ve lost sight of its value. When shopping, rarely do we stop to consider the resources required to grow, process, and transport the items to us that are being wasted. Neither do we consider the damaging effects of the scraps and untouched items that find their way into our bins and later landfills.

Top tip: Give this article, ‘the real carbon footprint of the stuff we buy’, a read (because everything we buy has a carbon cost). By remembering the energy and carbon cost of our food next time you’re shopping or deciding what to eat for dinner you’ll be less inclined to throw it away

Fake food waste news

Even those with the best intentions can be waylaid by the misinformation we have been led to believe. For instance, a fifth of the Scottish population believes food breaks down naturally so we don’t need to worry about throwing it away. What they’re not understanding is that when food decomposes it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is more harmful to the planet than carbon dioxide.

There are a whole host of falsehoods around food storage that we also accept, such as frozen foods being worse for us as they lose their nutrients. In reality, freezing simply pauses the freshness, can be a great way to extend shelf life and provide weeknight meals without having to run to the supermarket. Other examples include believing things like onions, potatoes and tomatoes need to be stored in the fridge or storing a full loaf in a bread bin will keep it fresh.

We also tend to put our trust in vague labelling, such as ‘best before’ or ‘sell by’, leading us to throw away lorry loads of safe food. The only labelling we really need to concern ourselves with are the ‘use by’ expiration dates.

Top tip: Get storage savvy - use this handy A-Z guide for storing common food items to find the best ways to extend the shelf life of your food. Also, if you are unsure whether something is suitable to eat or not, be sure to check out Food Standard Scotland for advice and for visual cues and scientific explanations of trickier food situations to help you make smarter decisions regarding throwing your food away.

Love and leftovers

Many of us seem to have an innate dislike of having a sparse fridge as we tend to tie food to a sense of being a provider. We love being the ones to care for people and sharing food is a large part of that. This is most evident when you think of Christmas antics, over buying just to make sure you have enough in and filling up people’s plates with more than they could possibly eat. While you may have good intentions and want to share with loved ones an unnecessary by-product is that this often leads to excess food being discarded.  

This is made worse by our cookware and utensils which seem to encourage excess. Our fridges are huge, dishes are designed for large families and serving utensils make reasonable portions look laughable. 

Top tip: Leave them wanting more – rather than plating meals up yourself try serving food ‘buffet-style' and let people dole out their own portions. Not only does this save you the hassle of serving up, but it also helps to make sure people only take what they can eat or the foods they like. This means less plate waste going into the bin and ensures leftovers remain in perfect condition to be stored and look more appetising when eaten later. 

Try serving food ‘buffet-style'. Saves the hassle of serving up and helps people only take what they can eat or like meaning less food waste and ensures leftovers remain in perfect condition to be eaten later. #HowToWasteLess

Fitness fallacy

Another common flaw is that we tend to be too aspirational with our meal planning and fail in the follow-through. We all go through periods where we acknowledge we should eat healthier and load up on kale and endless protein thinking we’re training for the Olympics, forgetting we’re more at home grabbing a take-away in front of the TV while the food rots in the fridge.

Top tip: Be realistic - you don't have to plan every meal in the week but have a clear idea of 4-5 meals you want to make and incorporate your comfort foods. Leaving some gaps in the week allows for a few spontaneous meals when you don’t fancy shredded kale and lets you be flexible with unexpected leftovers.

The new (not-so) normal

We are very much creatures of habit who know what we like, sadly these biases and quirks force us into illogical wasteful behaviours. 

A prime example of this is our aversion to wonky fruit and veg. It seems we take physical appearance into consideration for something we are going peel, chop and eat anyway. This perfectly good food has historically been wasted and left on the shop shelves, leading growers to discard these ‘ugly’ foods before they even get to the stores because they just aren’t cost-effective. All because we'd rather have a picturesque peach. 

This leads to another point, why do we peel? It is the expected thing to do with carrots, potatoes and the like but is it really necessary? It has been shown that simply washing the items and keeping their skin on can result in a nicer taste, you feeling fuller for longer, helping prevent diseases and providing greater nutrients which all come from the peel which are usually unnecessarily cast-off.  

Finally, we need to learn from our American counterparts and stop being so reserved about doggie bags. Our shyness when it comes to taking home food that we love and have paid good money for results in bins full of food needlessly going to waste. The problem is that those who look to alleviate their guilt over leftovers and ask to take theirs away will often forget about it in the fridge and let it go off at home instead.

This delayed disposal may make you feel environmentally conscious in the moment but in reality, you are simply swapping one bin for another unless you make leftovers a priority.

Top tip: Learn to jazz up unimaginative food – here are a few ideas to help you use up what you thought was inedible into tasty treats: 

So, that was just a small look at all of the things we do that can lead to food waste, and why we often feel disconnected from it. We understand that nobody likes to think they are part of the problem but by making ourselves aware of our actions and their implications, it gives us greater power to make the essential changes. At the end of the day climate change is a serious concern that requires all our attention and action, and the easiest solution for doing your part – simply to eat your food!



[1] Zero Waste Scotland Consumer Survey (2020)