Exploring food waste, responsibility and obligation

Image by Vikkin via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 703659694

Food waste is a widespread and growing problem in Australia. Statistics highlight that up to one-third of all food produced globally is wasted or spoiled. Australians dispose of an estimated 4.06 million tonnes of consumable food every year, and this wasted food ends up rotting in landfill. Fourteen per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions are caused by food waste, making food wastage a significant contribution to climate change.1

Food waste in Australia is even more problematic when considering that one in six Australians are reported to have experienced food insecurity at least once in the last twelve months.2 There are an estimated 644,000 people in Australia who now receive food relief each month and of this number, near 43,000 people seeking food relief go unassisted because charities and communities groups are unable to meet growing demands.3

Due to the sheer amount of food wasted in Australia, and the environmental, social and economic issues that are produced by food wastage, there is a pressing need to think about why Australians waste so much food and ways that food wastage can be addressed on all levels of Food Supply Chain.

Why is so much food wasted in Australia?

In an article featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, Professor Bill Pritchard examined the reasons behind food waste at the consumption level. Bill explained that food waste in Australia can be attributed to factors such as easy access to food in abundance, contemporary consumer mindsets and a preference for perfect looking produce.

Abundance & invisibility

Bill suggests that the availability of an abundant range of local and imported foods that are packaged and marketed for ease and seeming freshness make food waste an invisible problem for most of us. The serious social, economic and environmental issues caused by food wastage are not a major problem for the majority of us because if we waste food, the majority of Australians have access to more food – and so the cycle continues.

False economies and consumer seduction

Bill suggests that consumers have bought into the falsehood that purchasing mass amounts of food in bulk saves money. While it may appear that savings have occurred, these savings disappear if the food is later wasted and disposed of due to expiration or food fatigue.

A common cause of food waste can come down to contemporary consumer mindsets which favour choice and difference at every meal. Too often, food prepared in bulk goes to waste. ‘The irony is that with microwaves and other supportive technology, we are better positioned than ever to organise food consumption in ways that minimise wastage’ said Bill.

A preference for perfect produce

Bill also suggests that our preference for perfection means that imperfect produce is often discarded at the supermarket. This can be attributed to marketing ploys and supermarkets who glamourise perfection, which leaves consumers avoiding quality produce because of its appearance.

Who is ultimately responsible for food waste?

Food wastage is a multifaceted issue that occurs at all levels of the Food Supply Chain. From the stages of production; post-harvest; packaging; distribution and retail; and consumption, food is wasted, and one could argue that it is unhelpful to place blame on one sector of the supply chain, given that it is a complex issue.

However, consumers get a bad rap for their food wastage practices and with good reason. In Australia, the largest amount of food waste occurs at the consumption and retail stages of the Food Supply chain.

As the majority of food wastage in Australia occurs at the latter end of the Food Supply Chain, changing consumer behaviours is a necessary first step in confronting the issue of food waste.

What can consumers do to address the issue of food waste?

Dr Alana Mann, an SEI Key Researcher in our Food Systems research area, explains that consumers can work to address the issue of food waste by:

1.Thinking about how food will be used when shopping

We need to become more connected to the food we buy if we are to help avoid food waste, and this starts with being mindful of how you buy, store, prepare and discard your food. When shopping, bring a shopping list will all the ingredients needed for planned out meals to avoid unnecessary purchases. Once home, store food properly and make a habit out freezing left overs. If you are simply more conscious while you shop and cook, you’re less likely to waste.

2. Donating unused and unwanted food

Individuals living in Sydney can donate surplus food to a number of community centres, local homeless shelter, church, and school. Not for Profit organisations and charity’s such as FoodBank, The Exodus Foundation, Oz Harvest Sydney, SeconBite, and QMHR Ark Mission are just some examples of organisations that want to take your unwanted surplus food off your hands. Such donations will lower your carbon footprint and contribute to addressing local food insecurity.

However, ‘successful food donation also requires more funding for infrastructure (e.g. fridges, freezers, and vans to increase capacity) and better coordination and education between supermarket staff, companies, and consumers to encourage donations instead of throwing produce away’ said Alana.

3. Recovery and recycling of organic matter

Why? Because we need it. ‘There is 30-70% decline in organic matter in Australian soils. Recycling your food waste through worm farms and composting improves soil structure, water retention, and crop yields. However, the quality of waste is also key to improving the soil’ explains Alana.

Reducing food waste is a shared obligation

While individuals can and should think critically about their food consumption and food waste, reducing our food waste at each stage of our Food Supply Chain must be perceived as a shared obligation.

If we are to see real reductions at the consumer level, individuals must be educated on the issue of food waste and prepared with the tools to reduce waste, recycle their waste and responsibly dispose of their waste.

At a structural level, governments and institutions need to work to endorse practices and policies that will reduce food wastage at the retail and consumer levels of the Food Supply Chain.

There are successful examples of local governments reshaping food waste policies. In 2014, Sydney’s Leichhardt Municipal Council provided residents with dedicated food waste bins and eco-friendly bin bags.

The food waste is collected and converted into a green electricity ‘using an anaerobic digester, which uses bacteria to convert solid and liquid food into high nutrient organic fertiliser and biogas (similar to natural gas). This biogas is then sold into the electricity grid’ as green electricity.4

The Leichhardt Municipal Council’s efforts to reduce food waste is an example of the recognition of the need for shared responsibility in addressing the complex issue of food waste.


1.  Maria Rosaria Torrisi. Strategic Analysis paper: Food Waste in Australia. Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme, p.3.
2. Foodbank Australia. End Hunger Report (2016), p. 7.
3. Ibid.
4. Herriman, J., Mikhailovich, N., Wynne, L., Downes, J. and Boyle, T. (2014). Leichhardt Council Community Engagement and Participation Plan: Food recycling in multi-unit dwellings. [Prepared for Leichhardt Municipal Council, NSW], Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS, Sydney, Australia.

On Friday 8 September, SEI in partnership with Sydney Ideas and the Food Wastage Fighters Society hosted The Food Waste Debate which questioned whether or not consumers are ultimately responsible for food wastage. Click here for details on this past event.