Can nudging help tackling the issue of waste?
Food waste is a big deal. One third of the global production of food is not consumed: that percentage represent the portion of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, use of fertilizers, pesticides, water (etc.) that we put in the environment. In Europe, according to a study by the European Commission, 22 million tons of food are wasted every year, with the UK being top of the list. According to FAO, annual tons of wasted food in Europe are 90 millions. EU bodies are trying to identify ways to solve the problem. Talking of the distribution and consumption phase, the Commission proposed the development of national strategies to prevent food waste of at least 30 % by 2025. In July 2015, the European Parliament urged EU members to cut down wastes from supermarkets by donating food to charities. However, the proposal was not welcomed by all countries, with some being reluctant.
Nudges are small interventions that stem from behavioural economics studies, helpful to steer people in a particular direction. Nudging entail making simple, minor adjustments, which can however bring huge impacts and influence people’s choices. Let’s see how this can work, in the context of the consumption phase.
The illusion of portions
In restaurants two thirds of what is thrown away come from the leftovers from our plate. If we think about it, a normal meal put on a large plate may look tiny so dishes need to be fuller. Researchers came up with the idea of down-sizing the plate, to encourage people to avoid taking too much food. They tested their hypothesis in 7 hotels where guests were serving themselves from a buffet. The results were clear: people took up to 20% less on their plate. A previous study conducted by Wansink and Seabum (2000) anticipated these results. The researchers distributed awful pop corn to the subjects, but some of them ate more than others. In fact, subjects ate up to 50% more when they were eating from a bigger container. The simple reason is that it was more difficult for subjects to monitor how much they were eating.
In dining halls we waste huge amounts of food and we don’t think about the role of trays. If our tray appears too empty, or half full, we may think we did not get enough food. This leads us to get more food than required, and very often we waste it in the end. Many universities in the US dropped the use of trays. At Alfred University for instance, food and beverage waste was reduced between 30-50 %. Also, without the need to wash and sanitize trays, the use of water and chemical products is reduced. Just like that.
Indeed, nudging will not ‘save the world’ and structural changes are required, particularly in the phase of food production. However, this will take time. In the meanwhile we can work on the many individual behaviors that are detrimental for the collectivity, and there is little awareness of that. Seemingly small actions compounded collectively can contribute to solve larger issues, and nudges provide a valuable tool to steer individual behaviors towards better choices.