The Behavioural Factors Affecting Food Waste

Agung Prasetyo
11 min readAug 9, 2022

The differences between food loss and food waste
Food loss and food waste have become an emerging issues in the global concern recently. In 2011, for example, Food Agricultural Organisation (FAO) revealed the estimation that around 1/3 of the world’s food was lost or wasted yearly. In addition to that, the 2030 global agenda of Sustainable Development Goals have also shown the concern. As stated in the goal 12.3, it is targeting to halve per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030, and to reducing food losses along the production and supply chains. Among the escalation issues regarding food loss and waste, however, each of the two (food loss and food waste) actually has a specific definition which typically distinct.

According to FAO, food loss is the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers (FAO, 2019). Similarly, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines food loss as food that gets spilled, spoilt or otherwise lost, or incurs reduction of quality and value during its process in the food supply chain before it reaches its final product stage (UNEP, 2019). Based on those definition, empirically it can be said that food loss refers to any food that is discarded, incinerated, and/or disposed of along the supply chains and it takes place at production, post-harvest, processing, and distribution stages.

While food waste is defined as the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers (FAO, 2019). This means food that completes the food supply chain up to a final product, has good quality and ready for consumption, but does not get consumed because of any reasons such as discarded and expire is categorised as food waste (UNEP, 2019). Thus, there is a clear distinction that while food loss takes place during the processing and has not reached the consumer level, hence, food waste typically occurs after the food is processed and has been ready to consume. It usually involves retailers, food service providers, and consumers.

What is behaviour?
According to Cambridge dictionary, behaviour is the way that a person, an animal, a substance, etc. behaves in a particular situation or under particular conditions. Based on that definition, people actually have options to what they want to choose to behave, including as simple as buying foods. More than that, there is a popular theory called TPB (theory of planned behaviour). As stated by (Ajzen, 1991) TPB defines that behaviour is directly determined by intentions, which in turn are predicted by perceived behavioural control, subjective norms, and attitudes. Perceived behavioural control is a measure that captures the degree to which people perceive that they have the ability, means, and opportunity to perform a particular behaviour, subjective norms are made up of the perceived expectations of other people or the social pressure to engage in that particular behaviour, and attitudes are generally a particular behaviour for the individual favourability (Russell et al., 2017). The important thing is that to point out that behaviour can influence or otherwise be influenced which becomes necessary in terms of human decision in conducting actions.

Half of the world population is concentrated in only one region which is Asia with the most populous nations such as China, India, and Indonesia are located. In fact, industrialised nations such as the ones from Europe and North America tend to waste food at the consumption stage, while in less developed and low-income countries massive food wastes are generated primarily during early and middle stages of supply chain (Ong et al., 2018) — meaning that the waste is actually specified as food loss. However, the contribution of food waste at the consumer level is still quite high and cannot be undermined.

Figure 1. Per capita food losses and waste at consumption and pre-consumption stages in different regions. Source: FAO, 2011

As it can be seen that with only Asia (both industrialised and South & Southeast Asia) can contribute around 100 kg/year in per capita food waste at consumer level (Figure 1). This amount had almost reached the total production of food for South and Southeast Asia. Although based on the data food loss seemed to weigh food waste due to many countries in Asia is still developing (factors like inefficient post-harvesting process found in agriculture-based country), the trends of food wasted by consumer levels are increasing because the countries are also advancing and many people in the future will be more concentrated in cities. In India, for instance, increasing population, rapid urbanisation and migration to urban sectors is lately shifting the focus into industrial and services-oriented country, with around 31.2% population living in urban areas (Joshi & Ahmed, 2016). Food waste in India is mostly come from agricultural residues and municipal solid waste (MSW) generation (Ong et al., 2018). While the generation of MSW, moreover, from 62 million tonnes will almost triple to 165 million tonnes by 2031 (The Planning Commission Report, 2014). Thus, the dramatic incline of MSW means more food waste will be generated as well.

Food waste minimisation efforts
Although Asia contributes large amount of food waste, numerous ways seem to take place among many countries. A comparative study was conducted through group works concerning prevention policies in tackling food waste among four selected countries in Asia; Indonesia, Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong. The study aims to examine the extent of food waste in Asia, to identify specific factors that influence food waste generated in the countries, and to examine the minimisation strategies in the chosen nations. Besides that, a hypothesis was set in foreseeing that higher GDP per capita nations contribute larger food waste than the lower GDP per capita countries, while however, the higher income countries will have better capacity (manpower, funding, and technology) in tackling the issue.

The results reveal that Indonesia as the country with lowest GDP per capita produced the largest food waste with the total of 78,567,270 tonnes a year or equals to 300 kg per person (BPS, 2018). Then, it was followed by Singapore with the total food waste of 809,800 tonnes a year (144 kg per person), Hong Kong with 237,860 tonnes a year (182.5 kg per person), and the least was Macau with 203.793 tonnes a year or equals to 312 kg per person (NEA, 2017; DSPA, 2017; Government of Hong Kong, 2017). Although Hong Kong generated considerably less than the other two advanced nations, each of individual in their small number of population was responsible for more than double food waste than Singaporeans which produced three times larger amount of food waste in total.

Regarding the policy interventions, the higher income countries have better initiatives. For examples, in Singapore there are Zero Waste Master Plan, food waste publicity and outreach programme, and on-site food waste treatment system. In Hong Kong, additionally, there are Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013–2022, and food waste treatment facilities, as well as pilot composting plant. In contrast, Indonesia seems to do not have a strong focus in tackling wasted food reflected by more policies aim for general waste such as Indonesia Bersih Sampah 2024 (Indonesia Clean Waste 2024). The emerging efforts related to food waste in Indonesia are initiated by private sectors, youth movement and NGOs. While Macau was found quite late in the concern of food waste prevention policies, but has been moving forwards in recent years.

Another compelling discussion is about the limitation of current technology and system to incinerate food waste. By owning advance technology, for example, Singapore has made the country has been able to adopt sustainable approach incineration. They have a technique that can treat 80% of solid waste to produce heat and energy from combustion (McDougall and Hruska, 2000). However, from the total of 763,100 tonnes food waste generated, only 126,200 tonnes (17%) were successfully recycled — meaning the other 83% were disposed (National Environment Agency, 2018). It is therefore, more effective methods are currently being investigated by the government. This similarly occurs in Hong Kong which recovered only 6.13% of their total food waste generation letting the remaining 93.87% were disposed (Government of Hong Kong, 2017).

Other Regions
In the regions like North America and Europe where most industrialised cities are resided, loss of foods generated by retail and consumer levels were more than 40% of total wasted foods — a higher proportion compared to Asia, South America, and Africa which were most waste come from processing stages (FAO, 2011). In about 900 kg/year of foods produced in North America and Europe, 280–300 kg foods were wasted within a year (Figure 1). Due to the large contribution of food waste in consumer level in other regions, therefore, envisaging beyond the regional scope of group work (only Asia), especially for identifying the factors affecting food wastage is required.

There are numerous factors playing important roles in terms of the reasons people are wasting foods. The specific factors found in the group work are correlated to economic and development aspects such as better living standards, rapid urbanisation, availability of food services (retail, super market, e-commerce, and etc.). However, those factors are also strongly co-existence with the behavioural factors from the people (Fox et al., 2018) such as a satisfied feeling after buying lots of food, prestige to carry more belongings when go shopping, less awareness (e.g. forgetting foods stock on the fridge). Therefore, it is interesting to elaborate more regarding behavioural factors affecting food waste in order to identify, examine, and discuss the extent of the factors. Instead only a single, there are apparently multiple behaviours could take place. Some specific residential, institutional, and commercial behaviours are described below.

Residential Factors
Various typical behaviours which lead to wastage of foods might be familiar to many people across the globe. People generally do not have a good planning at the shopping stage which this may lead to over-purchasing (Koivupuro et al., 2012). Besides that, people also seem to have lack of ability in serving foods. In the U.K. for example, 40% of food waste was resulted from improper serving and preparation (Quested and Johnson, 2009) — taking or giving more foods exceeding the capacity to consume. Although it sounds like a simple thing, it actually is difficult to estimate precisely how much food that we cook can be eaten by our family, relatives or guests that we serve. This difficulty tends to make everyone thinks that it is better to serve more foods than not enough, causing this behaviour is both unintentionally and intentionally conducted (Pearson et al., 2013). Thus, it indicates that wasting food behaviours at household level occur by the interaction of people with the journey of foods going into them — from the storage to consumption.

Even though the behaviour of wasting foods among residents seem to be because of the people are generous to others, however, I would like to argue that this must be changed. The familiarisation upon wise utilisation of foods should have to be prioritised. Such information like letting people know about the fact that millions of people are starving and do not have sufficient access to food can be one of the framing position in order to attract and waking up people’s empathy.

Commercial and Institutional Factors
One of the well-known and common distributors of food is supermarkets with the large numbers of chain they have. As discussed in the previous section that people will waste food in a process they get it, however, the more easy access provided by commercial sectors also play an important role. Besides that, supermarkets have certain standard of appearance, weight, and shape which grocers keen on even discard the slightly imperfect foods (Thyberg & Tonjes, 2016). In addition, in food service providers like restaurants they would prefer having more stock rather than run out of ingredients due to the wide range of menu they offer to customers. This sort of inaccurate estimation of stock is similar as it occurs in household level behaviour, but it may contribute relatively larger amount of wastage.

However, although these factors may drive the food waste generation, the rate between commodities seem to be vary. For example, the unsold fresh delivered foods in U.S supermarkets due to any reasons started as low as 2.2 percent for sweet corn to as high as 62.9 percent for turnip greens; while for fruit commodities were ranging from 4.1 percent for bananas to 43.1 percent for papaya (Buzby et al., 2015). All of these discussions is also relevant to what (Buzby and Hayman, 2012) found — foods in retail and institutional levels are wasted specifically because; unpurchased specialty holiday food, damaged packaging, damaged or inadequately prepared items, over-stocking or over preparation of food, routine kitchen preparation waste, and out grading or quality control.

It seems to me that food waste is a global phenomenon which is not limited to a certain regions. Moreover, one of the significant drivers is rooted in human behaviour that causing larger systemic impacts. Therefore, it is recommended that the initiatives of reducing food waste will not only focus in the mitigation efforts — meaning take care of food which has been wasted — but also to safe the food that will potentially be wasted. It can be done by educating children the importance of treating foods wisely as their daily habit, and make them not getting too influenced by such commercial standard (shape, colour, weight, etc.) in choosing foods as long as the quality is proper to consume. Additionally, spreading information to adults is also necessary in order to make them fully realised that this issue is becoming seriously impactful. Last but not least, conducting training for the commercial sectors for better skill in management of food stock will be very useful — no unused stock, even if there is, other solutions might come other than directly wasting it.

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