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Waste not, want not

TResearch Spring 2022

Food waste is a big problem contributing to declining resources and climate change. To try to curb this, researchers from Teagasc and National University of Ireland, Galway are providing insights into food waste behaviour.

The concept of reducing waste and the importance of it is far from new, and yet we currently live in a society where approximately one third of all the food that comes into homes is wasted. This food waste may have dire consequences for us in the near future, when we will need to feed an additional two billion people with the same resources we currently have.

As consumers, we’re responsible for a significant proportion of food waste, and it’s important that we recognise food as a valuable commodity and radically decrease our tendency to waste it. That’s why researchers at Teagasc and National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) have undertaken research to better understand our food waste behaviour and identify ways to improve and change it.

The reality of consumer food waste

As part of their Circular Agronomics project, the researchers conducted an exploratory study on Irish adults to examine factors relating to sustainable food behaviours, including food waste behaviour. 263 adults completed the questionnaire, in which they indicated their level of agreement – from ‘totally disagree’ to ‘totally agree’ – to a range of statements.

Cluster analysis was used to group consumers based on their responses to food waste statements, and then the resultant clusters were profiled to identify differing behaviours and attitudes.  Three different clusters of food waste consumers were identified, as seen in Figure 1.

The first group – ‘all waste’ – accounted for 32% of respondents. This group was made up of consumers who tended to waste food in every aspect by cooking too much food and throwing away leftovers, as well as wasting food before it was even cooked or consumed. The second group – ‘staple waste’ – accounted for 29% of respondents. This group was not so wasteful overall, but was more likely to waste fruit, vegetables and bread. The third and largest group – the ‘overcooks’ – accounted for 39% of respondents.

This group was the least wasteful – typically guilty of cooking too much food but rarely throwing it away.

When these groups were further profiled, it was shown that the ‘all waste’ group was more likely to purchase or serve more food than was required. The more positive behaviours in the ‘overcooks’ cluster were significantly influenced by perceived behavioural control. Meal planning was a behaviour practised by this cluster, and checking the fridge and making shopping lists helped to reduce their food waste.

In addition, social norms were also found to have a positive influence in the ‘overcooks’ cluster – if a peer group important to them promoted the behaviour to reduce food waste, then they too were more likely to behave in the same manner. 

Changing behaviours for the better

The UN Environmental Programme Food Waste Report estimates that, globally, 8-10% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food waste alone. The resources used to produce our food also cannot be recouped if it goes to waste and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not unsurprising, therefore, that one of the key targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to reduce food waste globally by 50% by 2030. In line with this, the EU Farm to Fork strategy has proposed to set a legally binging target to reduce food waste by 2023.

Simple measures like meal planning and shopping lists, along with positive behaviours among our peer groups and knowing how to control and minimise our food waste, can be used to nudge consumers in a positive direction of food waste behaviour. And the insights from our researchers on food waste behaviour can contribute to development evidence-based policies targeted to the different ways in which consumers waste food, to more effectively reduce its prevalence. 

Fact file

The first recorded proverb advising against waste was believed to have been written in 1576 by playwright Richard Edwards in The Paradise of Dainty Devices. He wrote: “For want is nexte to waste, and shame doeth synne ensue”.

Figure 1. Percentage of respondents who agreed with food waste statements, split by food waste behaviour cluster.

  Allwaste Staple waste Overcooks
Fruit and vegetables get thrown away before they are consumed 86% 61% 7%
Bread gets thrown away before it is eaten 81% 57% 4%
I tend to cook more food than I or members of my family can eat at once 78% 16% 43%
Dairy products get thrown away before they are consumed 52% 26% 3%
Food gets thrown away at every meal in my household 50% 11% 7%
Meat gets thrown away before it is even cooked 29% 5% 1%


Meat was least likely to be wasted according to the researchers’ survey, with just 11% of respondents saying it gets thrown away before it’s cooked.


The average European consumer wastes 175kg of food per year.


Fruit and vegetables were most likely to be wasted according to the researchers’ survey, with 48% of respondents saying they were thrown away before they were consumed.


This work was conducted in the frame of the 2016 Strategic Research and Training Alliance on Carbon-Neutral Agriculture MoU between Teagasc and NUI Galway, where the Structured Masters degree in AgriBiosciences (StrMScAgriBio) is run in partnership with Teagasc. Jack Bradley was a student on the StrMScAgriBio program (2020-2021).


The Circular Agronomics project is funded from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, under grant agreement number 773649.


Sinéad McCarthy
Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown, Dublin.

Dmytro Serebrennikov
Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown, Dublin.

Jack Bradley
National University of Ireland, Galway.

Galina Brychkova,
National University of Ireland, Galway.