designer | researcher | educator

Why we waste

Why we waste


Despite the extent of food waste in the institutional sector, efforts to reduce this waste are in the early stages. Yet universities in particular are well-positioned to lead on this issue because they have frequently adopted sustainability goals and emphasize sustainability teaching and research. Universities and many other large institutions have also become interested in more transparent food sources, providing healthier food options, and reducing their carbon footprint.

Food waste collected from UC Davis dining commons food waste audit in Spring 2015.

Food waste collected from UC Davis dining commons food waste audit in Spring 2015.

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Initial observational sketches (2015)

Initial observational sketches (2015)

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In this research I asked the following question:

What are the social and environmental influences on food waste behaviors in an institutional setting?


The existing food waste reduction strategies are primarily in the form of passive educational approaches, such as signage or voluntary programs. These reduction strategies place responsibility on individuals and communities to enact behavior change and do not address the institutional environment and the social realities that influences food waste behaviors. This research aims to demystify the transition of food to surplus and waste and reveal the structures that shape behavior in the UC Davis dining commons.

Using Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory I created attitudinal and behavioral surveys. I administered 5,000+ surveys, conducted 20+ focus groups and 20+ one-on-one interviews. The focus groups included cognitive mapping and contextual inquiry. I analyzed 700+ surveys and transcribed and analyzed the focus groups and interviews data. Lastly, I did on-site observational analysis to measure peoples movements and behaviors and the environmental context in which people are situated.

Key findings

  • There is a misconception that wasting food is an act of overconsumption, laziness, entitlement, or irresponsibility.

  • It is a response to the visual and spatial environment, a by-product of established eating habits, a reaction to social dynamics, and rebuke of the existing monetary system in the dining commons.

  • Physical elements, such as the visual and spatial environment, created a culture of abundance that highlighted the availability of food and kept food waste hidden from students.

  • Disruptions in familiar eating patterns and difficulties establishing new routines, for example finding reliable sources of liked dishes and appropriate portions, also resulted in the production of surplus food.

  • Social dynamics played a significant role. Students felt discomfort and anxiety from social interactions and had to negotiate the tradeoffs between social comfort and food choice.

  • The AYCE payment structure was perceived to be inflexible, expensive, and lacking transparency, which made students feel justified in wasting food.

  • Many of these factors were exacerbated by high-use conditions during particular times of day, and particular times of the year.

  • The combination of the structural factors and social norms that governed communal dining frustrated the students because they were left feeling like they had little or no choice in wasting food.

  • While the dining commons focused on reducing food waste by placing responsibility on the consumer, for example through campaigns to increase awareness, our findings indicated that the AYCE system encouraged the production of food surplus and food waste. 

  • There are seven types of food wasters: the Economist, the Try-a-Taster, the Foodie, the Healthy Eater, the Conscientious Eater, the Socializer, and the Habitual Food Waster. Identifying the different types of food wasters and why they waste can help design better systems to reduce and prevent food waste in institutional dining settings.

Part of this research and findings were used for a journal article submitted to the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition in April 2019.

Images designed by Sahoko Yui and Katie Stapko. Sketches by Sahoko Yui.