We know that Americans throw out a lot of food, but, hey, why are we doing it? A new survey tries something new to figure it out: It asks us.

The survey (which is less an attempt at pinpointing actual food waste numbers and more an attempt at figuring out what’s behind it) was put together by researchers at Johns Hopkins and just published in PLOS One. Things started off on a high note, with almost all respondents at least getting within the ballpark of the actual amount of food Americans waste (it’s over one-third of the total food supply, or approximately 140 trillion calories).

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Alas, it was all too beautiful to last, as 3/4 of all respondents then went on to note that — while most other Americans may be wasting their food — such shenanigans never went on under their roofs.

In other words, everyone but me is the problem — a position which they then promptly undercut by going down the rabbit hole of the arbitrary and rambling process of how they actually decide which foods to throw out. Consider this little stream of consciousness novel, tentatively set to publish under the working title Hey, What Do I Do With This Milk?: A Journey of Self-Discovery:

“Most common was “use my senses,” reported by 72% of respondents; 39% reported using the “use by” date; 22% the “sell by” date [an indicator used by stores, leaving a buffer of time when products still remain high quality]; 18% reported thinking about how long the milk had been opened; and 12% reported thinking about how the milk had been stored”

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Of course, it’s no big surprise that when asked to assess their own behavior, people tend to underreport anything that could be perceived as negative; that’s what people do. So why should the disconnect between how much food Americans think they themselves waste and actually waste bother us?

Because a lot of the solutions to food waste (at least at the consumer level) are fairly simple behavioral changes: things like buying a little less food on shopping trips in the first place, understanding what expiration dates really mean, and knowing where to donate unwanted food before it spoils. But as long as we believe that wasting food is other people’s problem and not our own, we’ll just keep on doing it.

Image: A peak into a garbage bin behind a market / Foerster.

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