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A new study shows we’re likely to care about only one solution at a time. It’s called a “limited pool of worry”

Waste

Here’s the good news: people are more aware than ever that food waste is a social, economic, and environmental catastrophe. New research has helped to quantify the vast scale of the problem, while non-profit organizations and the media continue to draw the public’s attention to the most jaw-dropping statistics—that 40 percent of all food in the United States is wasted (about 20 pounds per week per person) while 1 in 6 continue to go hungry. At the same time, spurred on in part by consumer interest in the issue, businesses and institutions have begun to transform their relationship with waste.

But a new study suggests that these efforts—consumer education and corporate impact reduction—may function at cross-purposes. When it comes to convincing the public to actually change its behavior, a little knowledge may be a dangerous thing.

Recycling policies work at cross purposes with reduction policies.

The study comes out of Ohio State University, but it was inspired by the ReFed report, a road map generated by a coalition of non-profit and business leaders that lays out a strategy for reducing food waste 50 percent by 2050. According to ReFed, waste reduction efforts should have three pillars. The first is prevention, which includes educating the public about the scope of the problem, essentially shaming us into wasting less. The other pillars are recovery (finding ways to waste less food at farms and packinghouses) and recycling (making sure the food that does get wasted goes to composting facilities, not the landfill).

But according to the Ohio study, large-scale recovery and recycling efforts may actually counteract education-based prevention efforts aimed at individuals. In other words, the more we know about the good work that businesses, institutions, and municipalities are doing, the less likely we are to change our own personal habits.

Participants who knew their food waste would be composted left a lot more on the plateUniversity of Ohio

Participants who knew their food waste would be composted left a lot more on the plate

In the study, participants were given a free meal in exchange for answering questions about a brochure on the negative impacts of food waste. (A control group was given an info sheet on financial literacy instead.) Half of the participants were told that the session’s leftover food would be sent to the landfill; the rest were told that it would be composted by the university.

Guilt, it turns out, is a powerful motivator. The group that was told the food would be thrown out generated 58 percent less waste. Whereas the group that that was told the food would be composted wasted only slightly less than the control group, which received no information whatsoever about food waste’s detrimental effects. It was as if the existence of a composting program gave them license to waste. And that’s troubling, because composting, while still vastly preferable to landfilling, is not a silver bullet. We still waste untold resources growing, distributing, and refrigerating food that is headed for the compost bin.

 When we want to make a difference, we usually will perform one small action and go no further.

As the study’s co-authors put it: “Recycling policies work at cross purposes with reduction policies when consumers are made aware that other actors will mitigate the negative environmental effects of any consumer food waste created.”

When I spoke with Brian Roe, one of the study’s co-authors, he suggested that the findings were evidence of the “single action bias.” When we want to make a difference, we usually will perform one small action and go no further. (Researchers have an oddly poetic name for this attention deficit: they call it our “limited pool of worry.”) This is what activists have to contend with whenever they try to mobilize the public around a cause.

They call it “our limited pool of worry.”

But Roe’s study suggests the single action bias is even more insidious than previously thought. It’s not just that we think a single personal gesture is going to be good enough—it’s that even someone else’s gesture is enough to stop us from altering our behavior. We’re happy, in other words, to delegate the “single action” to someone else.

So, do bold new programs inadvertently let consumers off easy, making us less vigilant about our own personal conduct? And rather than celebrating advances in the fight against food waste, would we be better off sticking with plain old guilt? This creates a conundrum for anyone who cares about food waste. If we trust the study’s results, businesses, institutions, and municipalities might be better off keeping quiet about the good work they’re doing.

It’s too soon to say, and more research needs to be done. But as the progressive food community continues to try to engage the public on the most urgent issues, they should be clear-eyed. We all want to do the right thing, but apparently not as much as we want to let ourselves off the hook.

Joe Fassler bio

Joe Fassler

Joe Fassler is New Food Economy's senior editor. His food safety and public health reporting has been a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism. Follow him @joefassler.