New paper: Capabilities, opportunities and motivations that drive food waste disposal practices: A case study of young adults in England

Why is that so many young adults in England still generate a large amount of food waste, and fail to dispose of food waste separately from other waste?

This was the question that inspired a research project conducted by a team at Brunel University London (of which I was a member), in collaboration with the Harrow Council. You can read details about this work, in the paper entitled “Capabilities, opportunities and motivations that drive food waste disposal practices: A case study of young adults in England“, which was recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Every year, the average UK household throws away an average of £720 of food waste. This represents not only a waste of billions of pounds across the UK, but also massive environmental damage in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as nutrient and water loss. Additionally, many families dispose of food waste alongside other household waste, rather than recycling it through the food waste collection initiatives ran by their local council. As a result, food waste ends up in landfill, where it creates methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide, rather than being used for composting or directed to anaerobic digestion facilities, where nutrients, biogas and other valuable by-products can be recovered, to offset part of food waste’s economic and environmental costs. The problem is particularly prevalent among 18-30 years old, who not only have a much higher tendency than other age groups to waste food, but also tend to live in flats and shared accommodation, which is the type of dwelling / living arrangement recording the smallest rates of correct food waste disposal.

This was exactly the problem experienced by Harrow Council, where the vast majority of residents (and, most notably, younger residents) still dispose of their food waste in the residual waste stream, despite various initiatives to promote food waste reduction and correct food disposal practices.

With this in mind, a team led by my former colleague, Danae Manika, and including myself plus Eleni Iacovidou, Eujin Pei and Khanh Mach, conducted a case study of the reasons behind incorrect food waste disposal practices, among 18-30 year old residents of the Harrow council, in England. 

We found a lack of engagement with correct food waste disposal practices even among those young adults that recycled other items. For instance, some residents would empty jars of food sauce that had gone past its use by date in order to dispose of the jar in the appropriate recycling bin, but would then throw the unused sauce in the “undifferentiated waste” bin, rather than put it in the food recycling caddy. We also found that some residents recycled some food items (e.g., unwanted fresh fruit and vegetables), but not others (e.g., bags of salad leaves). These observations suggest that there are some specific challenges associated with the disposal of food waste, over and above general issues related to recycling or waste disposal.

We, then, used the COM-B framework, to capture how the observed behaviour (i.e., poor food waste disposal practices) were shaped by the capabilities (C), opportunities (O), and motivations (M) of 18-30 year olds. Here is a summary of the findings (note: FWDP is short for food waste disposal practices):

COM-B elementFindings
Capabilities (C)Do they know what the desired/correct FWDP is?
– Lack of knowledge and information on desired/correct FWDP from councils (e.g., which food waste items to place in the caddy, what to do with items not appropriate for the caddy, where to acquire caddy liners from) (theme C1). 

Are they physically capable of doing it? Do they have the mental or physical skills required?
– Remembering which food waste item can and cannot go to the caddy is difficult (theme C1). 

Do they understand why it is important for them to do it and how to do it?
– Those who engage in limited/incorrect FWDP discussed benefits to the environment but also to them as individuals (e.g., amount of money saved) (theme C2).
– Lack of awareness of benefits of FWDP and knowledge of what happens to it after collection for those who do not engage in FWDP (theme C2).
– Concerns over pests and public health (lack of correct disposal practices and information on this by councils) (theme C3).
– Confusion/Misinformation of desired/correct behaviour resulting from differences in FWDP between councils (relying on family/fiends that leave elsewhere) and relying on ‘common sense’ leads to incorrect FWDP or no FWDP (theme C4). 

Do they have the self-control required to do it and keep doing it if necessary?
– No/limited perceptions for need for self-control (theme C across 1-4). 
Opportunity (O)Do they have the time, financial or material resources to engage in FWDP?
– Some councils do not provide a food waste caddy or residents have to pay for it (theme O1).
– Financial concerns over purchasing caddy liners needed for FWDP (theme O2).
– Lack of regular collection by council (or pause in service) (theme O3).
– Features of food waste caddy (e.g., unstable, unreliable, too small to fit all in, too big for space) lead to lack of FWDP (theme O4).

Do they have the social support required?
– Lack of council prompts/reminders (theme O5).

Is it seen as normal in their social environment?
– Not the norm (theme O across 1-5). 
Motivation (M)Do they find it genuinely more attractive than competing behaviours?
– Benefits do not outweigh the costs (financial, health/pest concerns) (theme M1)
– Feelings of disgust associated with FWDP (placing it in the black bin not considered as disgusting as placing FW items in the caddy) (theme M2).
– Inconvenience (habitual) due to having to separate FW items, remember what can go in the caddy or not, or collection matters lead to lack of or limited FWDP (theme M2).

It is an established part of their routine?
– No or limited/incorrect FWDP (theme M across 1-2).

That is, we found that environmental concerns are not the main driver of engaging in FWDP. Convenience (or lack of it) is the key, as are concerns over aesthetics and cleanliness, and some confusion over the process. Based on our findings, we put forth a number of practical suggestions to the Council, to encourage correct FWDP among 18-30 year olds. Furthermore, the team are now looking at a number of interventions to promote food waste reduction and correct FWDP, among this age group, using digital technology. Stay tuned!

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