We throw out a lot of food in the U.S.—an estimated 30 to 40 percent of our supply. To prevent uneaten meals from ending up in landfills, some choose to dispose of scraps by composting them. However, as Co.Exist reports, this well-meaning approach can backfire: According to a new study led by researchers at Ohio State University, diners who know their leftovers will be turned into fertilizer don't try as hard to reduce their food waste during a meal.
Led by Brian Roe, an agricultural, environmental, and developmental economics professor, and OSU graduate student Danyi Qi, the experiment observed 266 participants as they ate a self-serve meal of sandwiches, chips, and apple slices. They were allowed to take as much food as they wanted, but they weren’t allowed to share meals or save any leftovers. At the meal’s end, researchers weighed diners’ trays to measure how much food they left behind.
Before the meal, subjects were given some reading material, either educational pamphlets about the environmental harm of food waste (this made up the "educated" group) or information about financial literacy (the "uneducated" group). However, around half of the participants in both groups were informed that their waste would be composted, while the rest were told it would end up in a landfill.
Diners who didn't think that composting was an option responded strongly to the educational materials: Those who read the pamphlet detailing the harmful effects of food waste ended up wasting 77 percent less food than those who received the financial literacy one. Educated diners were also nearly 40 percent more likely to finish their entire meal (leaving no waste). However, the positive effects of the education were nullified when diners were told their table scraps would be composted: When diners thought their waste was going to a "good" place, they had leftovers on par with the uneducated group.
The study's findings pose a challenge for policymakers aiming to reduce America’s food waste. They’ve tried to tackle the problem with public education and with landfill diversion techniques, like composting. However, these two approaches appear to “cancel each other out—they work at cross purposes,” Qi said in a press release.
“It seems that if [people] feel that the social and environmental cost is lower, they may feel less guilty and that may cause them to waste more,” Qi added.
Also, Roe points out to The Columbus Dispatch, people may feel less inclined to take multiple steps to help the environment if they’ve already completed one. "Once one box has been checked, there's not much appetite to do another thing," Roe said. "Maybe for some people, that box has been checked off (with composting)."
At the end of the day, composting your food is a better option than throwing it away. However, it’s better to avoid wasting edible goods in the first place—and with a little strategic planning, you can. At home, people can limit food waste by sticking to a strict shopping list of the essentials, cooking only what they’ll actually eat, and donating leftover edible foods to food pantries or shelters. As for restaurant owners, they can try giving customers a crash course in environmental awareness, instead of simply telling them they compost leftovers.
“Do it, but just don't brag about it," Qi told the Dispatch.