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Throwing Out Food

Attitudes to food waste in Russia

© Essentials/ISTOCK

Rational behaviour is not the only thing that keeps Russians from throwing away food; many food-handling practices have been shaped by socio-cultural factors, including the gastronomic trauma suffered in times of famine and scarcity. Valeria Erguneva and Darya Asaturyan have studied some of the cultural attitudes towards food loss and waste in Russia.

Getting Rid of Leftover Food

The researchers interviewed Moscow residents aged 21 to 72 from diverse social backgrounds (employed, temporarily unemployed, students, pensioners, homemakers) to gain a better understanding of the meanings people attach to throwing out food and the psychological factors which come into play.

Reasons why people discard food vary from lack of planning of food shopping to poor food storage practices.

  Unsure how much food they need to buy. Very often, people make a poor estimate of other household members' needs and preferences.
'Every now and then, you plan to buy, say, ten servings of some food and expect the other person to eat them all. But then it turns out they did not eat some of the food, and the leftovers get thrown out' (male student, aged 22).

 Change of appetites and plans, impulsive 'hungry shopping', not knowing what you already have at home (e.g. you forget having bought a food item and buy more; family members fail to coordinate food buying among themselves). 'Sometimes, bread gets thrown away: e.g. I get up in the morning, see there's no bread and pick up some on my way home from work, but then I see that Dad has also bought bread' (female massage therapist, aged 43).

 Mismatch between social engagements and shelf life of food.
'Sometimes we plan to have dinner at home and buy food but end up eating out or visiting friends. Then, after three or four nights of not eating at home, you open your fridge and see that virtually everything there must be discarded' (male driver, aged 35).

 Preference for convenience food.
'At times, you just can’t be bothered to warm up the soup and instead you grab something easier, and eventually cooked food gets thrown away' (male student, assistant researcher and teacher, aged 21).

 Hedonistic attitudes and protest against frugality. Some people associate worrying too much about wasted food with excessive frugality.
'I don't think it's okay to be so thrifty that you need to hold on to stuff that's broken or to leftover food' (male student, aged 22).

People who perceive food primarily as a source of pleasure rather than just 'fuel' for the body tend to reject leftovers and insist on eating freshly cooked food. 'Finishing everything on your plate whether you want it or not does not make sense, because one goes to a restaurant to have fun, not necessarily to clean your plate – otherwise it's a kind of pettiness... if so, why are you eating out in the first place?' (male sports commentator, aged 25).

 Life transitions such as moving to a new place, e.g. from a village to a big city or away from one's parents. Impulsive buying and throwing stuff away can feel like a newfound freedom for young people who have just moved away from their parents to live independently. People who relocate from rural communities to cities sometimes struggle with new waste management practices. 

'When I lived in the village, food was never thrown away but given to pigs or dogs – those rural dogs are not like the spoilt city dogs here, they will eat almost everything. So we would never, ever dump food. When I moved here, I felt terrible throwing food away at first, but eventually one gets used to everything’ (female owner of a hair salon, aged 33).

Shifting Responsibility

People tend to blame others for forcing them to waste food; chain supermarkets are often accused of using marketing tricks such as discounts and promotions to encourage impulse buying and offering food in large packages so that a small household is unlikely to finish it before the food goes bad.

Russians also accuse retail stores of manipulating product shelf life, e.g. relabelling packaged food to change its expiration date.

'Because they are all too smart to just discard food – it's like throwing money away, right? No one wants to do so. Honest retailers in the U.S., e.g., will discard food approaching its expiration date, but food stores here will replace the label with the date and sell the food anyway.  Why would they discard it if they can sell it?' (male engineer, postgraduate student, aged 26).

Frozen Conscience

Not all people are concerned about food waste. Some consider it a natural and inevitable consequence of 'society's evolution'.

'It used to be really hard for prehistoric people to kill a mammoth, so they would use up every bit of it – meat, bones and the rest. But people living in a big city today can buy as much as they want and more. It's not a problem, it's a matter of consumption. We are a consumerist society, after all' (male student, aged 22).

Indeed, some people report feeling a kind of relief getting rid of food ('clearing space in the fridge feels good').

On the other hand, even those who do not mind throwing food away can feel guilty about wasting something still good enough to eat and prefer to keep it in the fridge for a while until it goes bad and can be discarded without remorse.

'I have experimented with freezing leftovers but when I defrost them later I do not really like the taste and dump the stuff anyway; so I just add another stage – freezing and defrosting – before it ends up in the trash' (female technologist, aged 38).

Philosophy of Conservation

The researchers also examined why some people refuse to waste food and what they do instead and found a range of reasons and solutions.

Rational behaviour. Adequate planning of the amount of food one needs and choosing foods with longer shelf life.

 Financial constraints (poverty). Low-income households are forced to plan their consumption. According to the researchers, 'such people buy exactly as much food as they find necessary to satisfy their physical needs'.

Unconscious choice. People raised in poverty and scarcity make sure no food goes to waste.

 Avoiding food waste as an unproductive use of resources such as money, time and effort invested in shopping for food and cooking.

Respect for other people's labour which went into producing the food, dating back to Russian peasant traditions. 'No matter who purchased the food I have to throw out, I still feel sorry for the effort of those who produced the food and the money spent buying it' (male student and research assistant, aged 21).

 Finding waste unacceptable in principle. Instead of letting food go to waste, some people find ways to use it (giving it to neighbours and friends, feeding pets or stray animals, processing and preserving, etc.). 'If I buy sausage, let's say, and it looks good at first but goes bad on the next day despite being stored in the fridge, what will I do? I will boil it, changing the water twice, and then I can feed it to stray animals on the street. But I will never just throw it out' (female technologist, aged 38).

Ethical consumption. Reducing waste to save the environment. Some, although not many, respondents share this attitude. 'I do my best not to waste food, first of all because it is not environmentally friendly. Someone killed a pig to make this pork but you did not eat it and threw it out instead ... I find it difficult to give up meat for ethical reasons but I am considering it for environmental reasons. At least, I am trying to avoid beef because its production is five or six times worse for the environment than poultry production' (female student, aged 22).

Guilt and Trauma

Other reasons why people resent wasting food include sociocultural values, some of them specific to Russia.

Religious attitudes can stimulate frugal behaviour. "Food should be treated as sacred. Throwing away food, particularly bread, is a sin. People have traditionally believed so. It's a sin to dump food' (retired male, watchman, aged 72).

Empathy with people from poorer countries, such as compassion for malnourished African children, or popular wisdom learned in childhood can also play a role.

'I never leave food on my plate. My mom used to say, don't do it or you won't find a wife' (engineer and postgraduate student, aged 26).

'Back in Soviet times, they taught me at school that bread is the staple of life and how much effort goes into growing and making it. These ideas are still very strong in me' (female owner of a foreign language school network, aged 38).

Perhaps the most important factor, according to the authors, is the 'gastronomic trauma' dating back to the years of hunger and scarcity during World War II, the post-war years, and the 1990s.

This memory encourages thrifty attitudes and prevents wasteful consumption in older and not-so-old generations of Russians.

'I often feel pangs of conscience [throwing out food] because it brings back childhood memories of my Grandmother' (stay-at-home mother, aged 27).

In addition to this, symbolically, throwing out certain foods can be particularly traumatic and cause stronger feelings. Such special foods include bread.

'I’ve had [this attitude] since childhood, perhaps since [being told about] the siege of Leningrad... when I see stale bread and is about to throw it out, I think, no, you cannot waste bread' (male driver, aged 35).

'Every time I have to throw out bread I feel ashamed and cringe inside. For some reason I only feel this way towards bread... as if I am committing a sin' (female massage therapist, aged 43).

The researchers conclude that despite a reported transition to a consumerist society and the abundance of goods in stores, attitudes acquired in times of scarcity and poverty and passed down to younger generations can discourage wasteful food consumption which is perhaps specific of Russian consumer behaviour patterns.

Ethical consumption and avoidance of food waste are largely due to past traditions in Russia, as opposed to Western countries where they are driven by concerns for the environment and public good. In fact, poverty experienced now by a significant part of Russia's population can discourage throwing out food but at the same time can be a barrier to environmentally-sound practices, since people seek to meet their basic needs before considering their environmental impact.

Seven Facts about Food Loss

Worldwide, one-third of the food produced for human consumption gets wasted.
In developing countries, food losses occur mainly at early stages of the food value chain and can be traced back to financial, managerial and technical constraints, while in developed countries food is wasted and lost mainly at later stages in the supply chain (distribution, retail and consumption).
According to the European Commission, 42% of all food produced in Europe is wasted at the final consumption stage, and two-thirds of this waste could be avoided.
Excessive production and supply of food has a negative environmental effect by creating a high demand for agricultural land resulting in an increased pressure on forests and fertile soil, waste of water and energy, and harm from biodegradable waste in landfills.
Food which is purchased but not eaten and thrown out leads to financial loss; e.g. an average UK household will lose some 680 pounds sterling every year on wasted food.
Food loss leads to higher global food prices, making food less affordable for the world's poor and increasing the number of people affected by malnutrition.
In Russia, 44% of people throw out food because they have not used it before the expiration date (VTsIOM, 2008).


Study authors:
Darya Asaturyan, Bachelor's Student of Sociology, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences; Research Assistant, LSES
Valeria Erguneva, Bachelor's Student of Sociology, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, May 17, 2018