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Understanding Food Waste Behaviour In Student Households

Unique UC behavioural research has revealed the extent of food waste produced by university students living in shared accommodation.

The research, conducted by Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury Professors Lucie Ozanne and Paul Ballantine, and Master’s student Aimee McMaster, studied 19 student households and delved into students' food planning, shopping, preparation, storage, assessment of edibility, and disposal practices.

“A lot of research relies on what people say, but this research is unique because it looks at behavioural measures,” says Professor Ozanne.

“By going into students’ homes, we were able to observe that during meal preparation the students weren’t good at sorting food waste from general waste. Fridge ethnography revealed that both fresh food and leftovers were left or lost in the fridge until no longer edible. And garbology analysis confirmed that a considerable amount of avoidable foods, such as fresh foods and leftovers, were wasted by students and not properly disposed of in kerbside composting bins.”

Professor Ozanne says the amount of waste generated by students was due to a number of reasons such as lack of organisation – not making shopping lists, planning meals and conducting food inventory.

“They were also unlikely to correctly sort food waste – only ten households had an organics bin, which was typically quite small and filled up quickly, so it was easier for participants to put food waste into the rubbish.

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“In addition, we found that they were throwing away food that was still edible but not perfect. They also don’t tend to use expiry dates, instead using visual assessments, and often didn’t share uneaten food.”

With 157,000 tonnes of food waste created annually in New Zealand, Professor Ozanne says addressing the issue of student food waste could have significant economic and environmental benefits.

“When food is wasted there is an individual economic issue, especially for students who are on limited budgets and given the increasing cost of living. Food that is thrown into waste and not compost also contributes to greenhouse gases quite substantially.

“In Christchurch we have a weekly kerbside organics waste collection, but more education is needed to help students set up internal infrastructure to capture food that could be properly disposed of in the compost system. There is also an opportunity for marketers to get involved, such as Woolworths’ The Odd Bunch, which packages imperfect fruit and vegetables at lower prices, to make it more acceptable for students to use imperfect produce.

“While there are a lot of apps for list-making and so on, it would also be good to see more attention given to the pre-shopping stages including home inventory, meal planning and food sharing.

“For students, I think there is a growing interest in the circular economy and how we can provide value by using the food instead of it going to waste – the challenge is putting that into action.”

Students, staff and the community will have a valuable opportunity to learn more about food waste as part of UC's Waste Education Campaign with various events happening, including the free public talk with educator, writer and content creator, Ethically Kate on Thursday 2 May. Find out more and register here:

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