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Most people will say they actively try to avoid wasting food, yet Australians collectively throw away almost A$6 billion worth of food every year, and food waste represents about a quarter of all household rubbish. This waste usually ends up in landfill where it decomposes, producing potent greenhouse gases such as methane.
The majority of this food comprises meal leftovers, partially used food (such as half an onion), and whole foods that expired before they could be consumed.
With the average family household throwing out up to three 5-litre bin liners full of food every week, there is clearly some room for improvement.
To help households waste less food, first we need to understand exactly why it happens. My research has identified three major contributing factors: food location knowledge (where are items stored?), food supply knowledge (what items are available?), and food literacy (how are items used and how do we judge if they are still edible?).
A lack of food location knowledge would leave food items languishing out of sight, buried the back of the fridge. A lack of food supply knowledge would lead to purchases of food that we already have (stockpiling). And low levels of food literacy can lead to edible food going unused.
My study showed that households generally have one to two members who do the shopping, but crucially there is typically just one person who takes responsibility for putting the food away. This means other occupants often don’t know where to find specific food items, leaving them unsure of what foods are available.
Respondents in my survey often reported finding foods such as half a tomato lurking in the fridge, and being unsure of how to use it or how it got there, would just leave it to go off. Sound familiar?
Time for an intervention
The Colour Code Project targets food location knowledge. It involves placing coloured pieces of plastic on the shelves of the household fridge, each colour representing a different food type (green for fresh produce, red for meat, and so on).
A chart indicating the arrangement of the coloured plastic was provided on the fridge door, which helps to locate food before the fridge door is even opened. (Post continues after gallery.)
After two weeks of testing, the Colour Code Project had inspired some participants to encourage others to place correct food types onto the correct colour. People generally found the system quite easy to manage, particularly in family households. The outcomes of the project saw food waste reduced quite significantly.