How can we exploit new methods to tackle consumer food waste in a digital age?

Technological advances and social media are set to become increasingly powerful tools in helping retailers and environmental organisations to engage consumers on food waste reduction.

Around half of the UK’s food waste total - around 7.3 million tonnes - derives from the home

Around half of the UK’s food waste total - around 7.3 million tonnes - derives from the home

That’s according to University of Sheffield research fellow Christian Reynolds, who was speaking at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum last week about the most promising areas of innovation in the food sector that can change consumer behaviour to prevent avoidable waste.

He commented on how the Internet of Things (IoT) is already helping to provide readily available measurements and real-time data, referencing Tesco’s pilot of a barcode-based technology which gives shoppers reminders to use or freeze food before expiry, and suggests daily recipe ideas.

Reynolds is confident that IoT will soon enable this type of technology to integrate with everyday appliances to transform the way people think about what they consume.

“Consumer behaviour change is possible and there lots of tools available that can help to create that change,” he said. “Let’s took it forward and look in two-three years time when we have the IoT happening and consumer loyalty card data. Can we prevent food waste if the supermarket knows the consumer brought that item yesterday and their fridge is already saying they have been there?"

Long-term thinking

A typical innovation available to consumers now is the FridgeCam – a device which keeps track of what its owners have in stock and when it expires, sending alerts to buy new items when necessary.

"There are interventions, home items such as the fridge camera model, that help people track what they have bought through apps like that," Reynolds continued.

"Integrating technologies with smart fridges is at least another two-three years away but that is definitely long-term thinking, looking at what people are buying now and integrating the loyalty card data and tracking best before and use by dates in the house and providing feedback.”

Around half of the UK’s food waste total - around 7.3 million tonnes - derives from the home, equating to around £470 worth of food being needlessly discarded every year by the average household. Evidence suggests that a generational gap in attitudes towards eating is helping to fuel the UK’s food waste mountain, driven by time-poor millennials who do not understand the value of the food on their plate.

Reynolds, who is also a technical specialist in international food sustainability at WRAP, confirmed that the registered charity will rollout specific behaviour change campaigns with the 18-34 age bracket in the upcoming months, with a pilot phase expected to launch in the new year across various UK regions.

It is understood that the schemes will take a similar approach as Sainsbury’s Swandlincote food waste campaign, which donated 15,000 fridge thermometers to households across the town to enable consumers to check whether their fridge was at the optimum temperature for storing food.

Power of social media

Reynolds pointed towards public opinion surveys that show the majority of UK citizens are concerned about food waste. But the problem lies in the fact that a large proportion of these people are not turning concern into “behaviour and action”, he said.

Some researchers have suggested that social media can be used as an effective tool to encourage behaviour change in the same way as face-face-contact. A recent study by academics at the University of Leeds showed there was a significant reduction in the quantity of food wasted by participants five months after e-newsletter and Facebook intervention campaigns had taken place.

Reynolds said that, in a social media-obsessed digital age, there is room for online behaviour change models to cut through the “information bubble” by developing fresh messaging and engaging campaigns.

“Yes we are surrounded by this information bubble, but you can get through it in lots of different ways," he said. "It’s about providing systems that enable people to change without them changing as much as they realise they are. It’s about providing nudges and systems changes. That could be through increasing shelf life so that they can shop less or keep things longer so that they don’t have to be as on top of stock control.

“It’s about making restaurants and manufacturers change their portion sizes reflective of what the consumer wants rather than what the manufacturers think they want. It’s also about creating a two-way dialogue and using a lot more data about the household that is now out there to look at how the consumer works and how familiar people are with cooking skills. There will be a lot more data coming out soon but for now I will just say social media is as effective as other tools.”

George Ogleby


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