This story has been updated.
And that’s exactly the kind of dumping that coronavirus-wary Americans seem less likely to do during the pandemic. Perhaps, hesitant to risk virus exposure at the store, you have improvised more meals from whatever the fridge offered. Or started doing inventories of your pantry and shopping with targeted lists. And, amid tightening finances, you may have eaten something past its “best by” date, or frozen vegetables before they turned to mush. Covid-19 has prompted many people to adopt new behaviors that groups such as ReFED have promoted for years. And those habits could have a real impact on food waste.
If enough of those habits stick, consumers might just cut into the 30 to 40 percent of food that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates is wasted during normal times. Preventing some of that waste would save fuel, water and other resources used to produce the food. It would also send less food to landfills, where it is a significant source of climate-changing methane.
“I am certainly optimistic that a silver lining of this pandemic is that overall less food will go to waste,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED.
While initial shocks to the food system certainly caused waste, the future could be different.
“Longer term, however, in almost every step of the supply chain, I’m seeing positive shifts that I think could lead to less waste,” Gunders said. When it comes to consumers: “This moment has created a forced opportunity for people to really improve their food management habits.”
Various market research studies in the United States have found that the pandemic caused more people to cook at home, and to do so with an eye toward avoiding food waste. British sustainability nonprofit WRAP surveyed United Kingdom residents and found that more people were deploying new, less wasteful food management practices, including making meals from random ingredients.
So, how much could these behavior shifts affect the volume of food waste? It’s hard to predict, experts say, noting that collecting hard data is expensive, requiring households to keep detailed waste diaries or auditors to sift through garbage. But, for now, WRAP has found that, at least in the United Kingdom, people are self-reporting lower levels of waste. The group regularly asks households to estimate the percentages of their milk, bread, potatoes and chicken that get tossed. Between November and April, those estimates dropped by about a third.
Whether they will drop permanently remains to be seen: The waste estimates ticked up a bit in June, particularly among people going back to work, but they were still well below November levels. WRAP found that people said they wanted to maintain their new food habits post-shutdown, but they cited time and convenience among reasons they might not.
Online behavior has also been telling: Readership on recipes and how-to guides on The Washington Post’s Voraciously website surged in March, April and May, with stuck-at-home cooks and bakers drawn to topics such as stretching yeast resources and ingredient substitutions. On EatOrToss.com, which I maintain to help people assess “questionable-looking” food, traffic tripled between February and May and has loosely followed the pandemic’s curve ever since, slipping a bit in June and climbing again in July.
Whether due to financial constraints, fear of interacting with virus-transmitting humans, or simply because being stuck at home means more time to chop vegetables and experiment, people are cultivating skills, from canning to baking bread, that could cut waste long after the pandemic.
Newfound kitchen skills may reduce day-to-day food waste even after the virus threat subsides, according to an Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy journal article set to publish in October. But the same analysis notes that variables, ranging from changes in shopping patterns to the tendency for people to waste food during transitional times, could cause more waste.
Quite possibly, the pandemic’s impact on household food waste may be tied to its long-term impact on our lifestyles overall. For example, work-from-home policies — a trend that appears likely to continue post-pandemic — may play a role in whether some households can keep up their new habits. That pound of turkey in your fridge is simply more likely to get eaten if you’re at home and there’s little risk of a spontaneous lunch with co-workers. Or, as Madeline Keating, who leads food waste work in Colorado for the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out, you can multitask: She once blanched and froze fading asparagus during a work call.
Pete Pearson, the senior director for food loss and waste at World Wildlife Fund, hopes consumers’ increased comfort with ordering groceries in advance brings about more recurring deliveries of staples such as milk, bread and eggs.
“If we think of food more as a subscription, that could in turn lead to food waste reduction just because it’s more predictable and you can match supply and demand better,” he said.
Gunders said that more online grocery orders could also mean smaller produce displays at stores, meaning fruits and vegetables could spend more time in shelf-life-extending temperature-controlled storage.
Online grocery orders, however, aren’t guaranteed to reduce waste. Among other factors, shoppers still have to avoid impulse buys and find uses for food that they discover isn’t quite what they expected when delivered. Like, say, when you think you’ve ordered six bananas, but six bunches of bananas arrive on your doorstep, which definitely didn’t happen to me.
The massive, shelf-clearing purchases common in March may have subsided, but Brian Roe, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University, worries the pandemic’s legacy may include larger food stockpiles in people’s homes, which could lead to forgotten and ultimately wasted food. While thoughtful freezing can preserve food and avoid waste, Roe notes that it’s easy for items to be lost in a sea of icy containers.
Dining at home can also reduce waste compared to frequent dining out, where over-ordering and ignoring leftovers result in more food getting thrown away. Buffets, which may cease to exist as we knew them, are notoriously wasteful.
Since the start of the pandemic, people’s concerns about food waste have intensified, said Laura Gurski, a consumer goods strategy consultant at Accenture who has been tracking consumers’ attitudes.
“This conscious consumer has emerged,” Gurski said, noting that Accenture’s “research is showing sustainability, limiting food waste and thoughtful choices” are becoming more important.
Keating, with NRDC, said the pandemic made addressing food waste feel far more urgent.
“The thing about household food waste reduction is that it really starts with a mind-set change,” she said. “It’s about being intentional about your purchases, taking the time you need to make a list, following the list and then doing inventory management …
“That just takes a certain level of dedication, and a lot of people have time for that dedication right now.”
Rachael Jackson is a D.C.-based writer and the founder of EatOrToss.com. Reach her at EatOrToss@gmail.com
More from Voraciously