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Food study finds ‘pay more, waste less’ approach could add up to smarter shopping habits


Those who bought from alternative food supply channels such as farmers' markets had much less food waste. Photo: Stock

Those who bought from alternative food supply channels such as farmers' markets had much less food waste. Photo: Stock

Those who bought from alternative food supply channels such as farmers' markets had much less food waste. Photo: Stock

Paying more for food might not be to everyone’s taste but it could result in much less waste.

Researchers found households that bought food fresh from local producers and ­markets threw out little

Those who bought from supermarkets, on the other hand, often left overstocked fridge drawers to become, as one member of the team put it, “coffins of decay”.

The former had to go out of their way and pay more, but the attraction of greater convenience and lower prices at supermarkets was undermined by frustration over excessive packaging and packet sizes too large to be used before going off.

The study was carried out by students from the business and environment schools at University College Cork.

They wanted to find out whether food waste was influenced by how and where people shop.

“We wanted to know what consumers and households are thinking and doing around food sustainability, and what frustrates them when making attempts to be more sustainable,” said study lead Professor Mary McCarthy.

“We were particularly interested in whether the variety of food supply channels affect our food choices and whether they are helping us to become more sustainable at home.”

Households in Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Italy took part in the project, sharing their shopping habits and baring their fridges.

Not surprisingly, organised shoppers – those who checked their cupboards first, made lists and planned meals – had less waste than disorganised shoppers whose purchases were influenced by mood, special offers and impulse buys.

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Shopping online helped because the default list of regular purchases was always available and there was less opportunity to impulse buy.

But online shoppers had to deal with even more packaging than if they had physically gone to the shop.

A common frustration was the lack of choice in the quantities of foods available because they came pre-packaged, often with more than the customer wanted or could use.

Supermarkets have 90pc of the grocery market in Ireland so their influence on food and packaging waste is huge.

Ireland dumps one million tonnes of food every year, which represents a huge waste of energy in growing, transporting, processing and packaging – all of which are major carbon-emitting activities.

The much smaller group who bought mainly or partly from alternative food supply channels, such as farmers’ markets, co-ops, independent butchers and fishmongers and through online ‘vegetable box’ and other fresh produce schemes, had much less waste.

“There was no packaging to deal with and having direct access to farmers or local producers made consumers put a higher value on these goods, so they were often more resourceful when it came to using them up,” Prof McCarthy said.

“In contrast, many consumers who shop at large supermarket chains reported being frustrated with the level of plastic packaging, particularly in fruit and vegetables.

“There were efforts made to save leftovers, or preserving some produce in the fridge or freezer, but more often than not the fridge and freezer became a coffin of decay.”

The researchers said retailers needed to get creative on reducing the amount of packaging used and give shoppers more control over the quantities of food they bought, without penalising them on price.

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