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Buying in Bulk Creates More Waste

There is nothing more satisfying than making a to-do list and then checking things off once they get done. My own personal favorite thing to check off is the one marked "groceries," both because I'm not the biggest fan of grocery shopping, and also because I know that once it's crossed off, I won't have to go back for another week.

I, like many other Americans, buy groceries in bulk. This action seems to make sense. You get discounts when you buy in large amounts, and you cut down on the travel time. But it also is a hugely wasteful practice.

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A new study looked at the habits of bulk buyers and found that those shoppers -- I'm looking at you, Costco membership holders -- throw out a whole lot more food than shoppers who buy groceries on a more frequent basis. The results of such an action are twofold. First, bulk buyers who believe they're getting great deals on groceries are literally throwing those deals in the trash. And two, as the California drought continues to show, creating food that's only going to be wasted is using up finite resources.

I spoke with the author of the study, Victoria Ligon, from the University of Arizona's Retailing and Consumer Sciences Program.

Why did you start to study this?

Victoria Ligon: I used to work in the food industry, and have always been interested in the environmental impact associated with food. When I first heard a statistic that 50% of the food that we grow gets thrown away, I instantly thought this is crazy, this is low-hanging fruit. We spend so much time worrying how we can make agriculture more sustainable, we need to grow food to feed a growing population. Then I thought, well, if we could do something to reduce how much food we're throwing away, that solves this problem from a different direction. It lessens the burden. It seems like reducing food waste, even though that's a challenge, might be easier than dealing with a drought that's produced by climate change.

Were the findings surprising?

Ligon: Human psychology has shown that people are really bad at making predictions about the future. That impacts our ability to know what we're going to want to eat a few days or a few weeks into the future. What I found is that people buy a lot of food because price is really salient at the grocery store, and the effort involved in shopping is really salient. So, they want to reduce the price and reduce their efforts. But what they almost completely neglect is the cost associated with throwing away food. Cost is not inconsequential. There have been estimates that each American throws away $400 of food a year, and households with children throw away almost $1,000 a year. We spend a lot of time thinking of the small differences in price at the grocery store and trying to save there, but we're not thinking at all about what we're spending when we throw that away because we didn't accurately predict what we would go through.

Is this a problem that can be fixed on a consumer level, or do more systemic changes need to occur?

Ligon: This is more of a structural problem than a problem individuals can combat through learning. I think it's possible at some level to pay more attention. But my main advice is for people to shop more frequently, so they're buying food they're going to consume in a very short timeframe in the next few days, which is sort of counter to the American way of shopping right now. So I think it's more of a change in shopping patterns, which some retailers are starting to pick up on. In L.A., people have access to Amazon Fresh and other grocery-delivery services, so that's a different way to think about grocery procurement.

Is this strictly an American problem? Or are other countries wasting food the same way?

Ligon: My study didn't address that, but other literature has shown that food waste stems from similar waste patterns in the developed world. The majority of food waste [here] is happening in people's houses, not in supply chains. In the developing world, most waste happens in the supply chain. I know that a lot of the food waste research happening now is coming out of the U.K. There are some similar issues there of people overbuying and storing food. I think Americans may have pioneered this new way of food shopping, where we go to super-centers and buy in bulk and store food in extra refrigerators in garages. But it seems like a lot of the developed world is doing similar things now.

Have you changed your personal habits since authoring the study?

Ligon: Certainly, I think about it on a regular basis. But I have found it challenging to increase the frequency of my grocery shopping, and I think that speaks to the larger picture of my study. This isn't necessarily something that an individual can make a huge dent in. There really needs to be changes in the way we collectively think about grocery shopping. I have one caveat, which is that I was looking at people who live urban areas, so I'm not sure if this extends to people in suburban and rural areas. But the people in my study had their pick of a number of different retailers, lots of different specialty stores, mainstream grocery stores, super-centers, natural food stores. People are used to being able to buy exactly what they wanted. Their preferred milk, organic chicken, their specific set of items. It's a hard thing to change when you have these selections. I can't say I dramatically increased the frequency of my shopping, though I think about it a lot. I long for when there's a delivery service where I can place my 10 a.m. order and have my groceries delivered for dinner.

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