Individual Action: The Power of the Individual

Food waste is a global problem that impacts human beings and the environment. Food that ends up in landfills decomposes anaerobically and pollutes the air with greenhouse gases (Niesenbaum 2017), and the global mass production and wastage of food perpetuates deforestation, single-crop farming, overhunting, and overfishing (FAO Food Wastage Footprint Summary Report 2013). In addition to its ecological impact on the planet, food waste socially and economically impacts the millions of people who do not have access to a sufficient amount and quality of food. Food waste is a global problem because it harms the environment and perpetuates the discrepancy between the amount of food that is wasted globally and the number of people who suffer from food insecurity.

Though many potential solutions to global food waste seem overwhelming and beyond individual control, food waste can be significantly reduced at the microlevel. Developed countries such as the United States typically generate food waste at the point of sale (such as food waste from supermarkets and restaurants) and at the hands of the consumer (such as household food waste). Thus, in addition to focusing on reducing food waste where food is sold, prepared, and consumed (such as supermarkets, restaurants, and other institutional food services, including college campuses), a significant amount of food is wasted in individual households (Niesenbaum 2017). Therefore, making individual behavior changes will help to reduce the amount of food that is wasted globally.

Individual efforts at reducing food waste can be made at the point of sale and within the household. Food waste often occurs when people buy more food than they need at the grocery store and are unable to finish it before it expires. This issue can be solved by simply buying less food at the store. More strategically, an individual can reflect on their past meals and determine what foods they finish and what foods typically end up in the trash. From there, they can alter their grocery list and only buy as much as they need. 

Source: University of California, Los Angeles, Sustainability.

Food waste at the point of sale also occurs at restaurants and cafeterias. Though individuals cannot control the portion size of restaurant meals, they can ask for a box to put their uneaten food in to bring home and save for leftovers. At cafeterias (such as college campus dining halls), individuals can serve themselves smaller portions and then go back for more food if it wasn’t enough. If cafeterias are not self-serve, individuals can request smaller portions when receiving their food. Additionally, going “trayless” in cafeterias reduces food waste by decreasing the amount of food that is taken back to the table (Niesenbaum 2017).

In addition to wasting food at the point of purchase, food waste occurs in the household. While some food is thrown out before it is even prepared (due to expiration dates or the over-abundance of food items), food waste also occurs when individuals cannot finish the meals they’ve prepared. One solution to this issue is to reduce the portion size, and then make more food if the initial amount wasn’t enough. If too much food is prepared, a solution is to simply put away the extra food as leftovers and finish it another time.

Source: Edible Manhattan,          November 10, 2014.

These individual solutions to food waste support the aspect of sustainability that focuses on the “protection of natural systems and biodiversity through the use of resources in a way that maximizes renewal, encourages reuse, and minimizes waste.” By strategizing and buying less food, reducing portion sizes, going “trayless,” and saving extra food for leftovers, individuals will significantly minimize waste while protecting natural systems (since food waste that decomposes anaerobically releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and perpetuates air pollution). However, there are some barriers to these solutions. Regarding grocery shopping, people typically fall into a routine that they may be unwilling to reevaluate. Additionally, it can be difficult to predict how much food will be needed each week, and most people would rather buy excess food than buy too little and have to make a second grocery trip. However, these barriers can be removed by incentivizing the reduction of food purchases, perhaps through neighborhood and community programs that discourage food waste through fun competitions and challenges. Food waste at grocery stores can also be reduced by prompts, such as signs around the store reminding shoppers to only taken as much as they need.

Regarding restaurants and cafeterias, a barrier to reducing food waste is that some people order or serve themselves more food than necessary because their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. In addition to going “trayless” and bringing home uneaten food to save as leftovers, a solution to this barrier could be to put prompts on menus or around cafeterias. On menus, putting the portion size and/or number of calories below each food item could help to reduce the number of items ordered by customers. At cafeterias, prompts could be put up by tray stations encouraging customers to go “trayless.” Though these solutions to barriers could be effective in changing individual behavior, they require interventions at the organizational/institutional level. However, these interventions could be influenced by individual people who sign petitions or lobby for changes in institutional policies regarding food waste.

Regarding food waste in the household, people may be unwilling to save food as leftovers simply because it is more convenient to throw out extra food, or because they don’t like the quality of leftover food. A solution to this could be to compost extra food instead of throwing it out. Additionally, neighborhoods and communities could incentivize the reduction of waste by setting up a “weigh the waste” type of program with trash collection, where households are rewarded for reducing their amount of trash each week. In addition to incentivizing waste reduction, a solution could be to employ the “commitment” strategy by encouraging residents to sign a pledge stating that they will reduce their food waste. This commitment could be even stronger if the names of residents who made pledges were listed in a community list serve email.

While some of these solutions to barriers involve the intervention of organizations or communities, they can be employed by individuals within those communities. Thus, individuals who are more motivated to reduce their own food waste can practice sustainability-related behavior changes, and can also enact change by encouraging their friends and neighbors to reduce their food waste. While many issues regarding food waste require institutional-level changes, the individual plays a significant role in the fight for sustainability and can have a huge impact on the reduction of food waste.


Works Cited

Niesenbaum, Richard A. 2017. Sustainable Solutions: Problem Solving for Current and Future Generations. Unpublished book, Oxford University Press.

Food Security Information Network. 2017. “Global Report on Food Crises 2017: Executive Summary.” Retrieved from

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