Post by Gordon Waitt and Catherine Phillips
What’s the point of poking about in fridges? One of us was asked this question at the recent conference of the Institute for British Geographers. The person asking seemed sceptical of the value of such an undertaking. For us, however, the short answer is: ‘plenty’. One aspect of our fuller answer makes connections between refrigeration, everyday household practices, and food waste.
Concern about the magnitude of food waste has been gathering around the world, and Australia is no exception. Australian household food waste in monetary terms is estimated at between 5 and 8 billion, of which 33-50% is fresh food or produce. Governmental departments and non-governmental organizations are undertaking research and public awareness activities. As examples, the Office of Environment and Heritage in New South Wales is operating a regional version of the global campaign ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ (begun in the UK), while OzHarvest and SecondBite continue their work of recovering and redistributing perishable food to serve people in need. Concern relates not just to the pressures placed on already challenged waste management infrastructures, but the implications for food security and environmental sustainability.
Strategies offered to householders to reduce food waste include things like: making shopping lists, decreasing serving sizes, storing food properly, and composting rather than binning. This kind of practical advice may be helpful for some households. However, it tends to overlook how people come to know foods they purchase to eat as waste, and how such understandings develop through lived experience. This is what we were interested in. And it led us to people’s homes, to poking about in fridges.
‘Oh geez! That needs to go’: feeling household food waste
‘Oh geez! That needs to go’ was what Melanie said as she led us through her refrigerator contents and when we came across a container of mouldy leftovers. It smelt. It was technicolour. It was shoved to the back until the tour. She offered her thanks for the prompt to clean it out. This quick anecdote gives a sense of what was involved in our study.
We took a material and visceral approach to examining practices of refrigeration and ridding, and how they interacted in people’s lives. This meant understanding food waste not as a static object separate from the ongoing activities of households, but as a dynamic part of those activities. It also meant considering the sensations, feelings, and forces involved in processes of how food becomes waste.
We spent time with participants in their homes – conducting interviews, collecting and discussing participant sketches, touring refrigerators, reviewing photos (taken by researchers and participants). In total, 28 households from Wollongong (NSW) participated. Most were food secure and shared ancestral regions, but ranged in structure, size, and age composition.
The results offer valuable insights into households, food waste, and the approaches undertaken to understand them. First, they disrupt the argument that we live in a ‘throw-away’ society – that people use and discard things without much thought. People felt very strongly about food waste. Hate, disgust, and shame were expressed about wasting, as well as pride and satisfaction in avoiding it. Everyone had methods to avoid and minimize wasting food, and several people had alternate means of disposal (especially composting or sharing with animals). Limiting food wastage also helped constitute participants’ self-identification as caring and responsible people.
Second, three activities were highlighted as key to understanding how people come to know food-becoming-waste. These were: placing; rotating; and assessing.
Placing was about creating an orderly space to avoid food loss through maintaining sightlines and ensuring items stay ready-at-hand. People had to negotiate with the configurations of their fridges, and their households, to ensure placing happened in ways that supported their lives. Placing things properly mediated anxieties about contamination, and supported ideals of freshness, orderliness, and cleanliness.
Rotating pointed to the importance of the flow of things in, around, and out of the refrigerator. It also connected to other household activities like shopping trips, waste collection, work, and meal preparation. People’s careful rotation of refrigerated foods illustrated how food waste does not solely lie in foods’ mutable material qualities or in people’s judgements of edibility, but also in the scheduling of everyday life.
Assessing activities relied upon bodily sensations as well as cognitive considerations of best-before dates. Date labels may have triggered assessments, but most often it was taste, texture, smell, and optics that determined whether something had become inedible and should be discarded. Assessments and follow-up actions were not uniform. Foods like mouldy cheese, soft carrots, and wilted spinach became part of complex negotiations with food safety anxieties, nutrition valuations, culinary skills, household budgets, embodied histories, visceral dynamics, and caring subjectivities. Even within households, agreement was unlikely regarding food inedibility and timely disposal
Greater attention to the lived experience of households and to food wasting as a material and visceral process is needed to aid policy-makers in developing strategies to reduce food waste. At a practical level, this means considering technical innovation – perhaps reducing refrigerator depth to enable lines of sight – but also deeper rethinking. Finding effective points to intervene means considering food wastage as part of a household’s complex constitutions of materials, skills, meanings, and affects. It also raises questions about how waste is defined – within households as well as within wider society.
Turns out, poking about in refrigerators can be quite productive – it might uncover that still-good yogurt pushed to the back, as well as prompt rethinking about food waste.
You can read more about this research in:
Denniss, R., & Baker, D. (2011). Wasteful consumption. In P. Newton (Ed.), Urban consumption (pp. 151–157). Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing.
Evans, D. (2014). Food waste. London: Bloomsbury.
FoodWise. (2015). Fast Facts on Food Waste. Katoomba, NSW: Do Something!
Gregson, N. (2007). Living with things: Ridding, accommodation, dwelling. Oxford: Sean Kingston.
Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. London: Sage.
Denniss & Baker (2011); FoodWise (2015).
 See Shove et al. (2012) for a conceptualization of practice as made up of materials, skills, and ideas.
 See also Evans (2014) and Gregson (2007)