But you might be insane if you don’t save pizza leftovers.
Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek (Getty Images)

Food waste has become not just an environmental issue but a moral one, brought to the national consciousness through media coverage like Anthony Bourdain’s documentary Wasted and “ugly” food-delivery services like Imperfect Produce.

The subtitle to Jonathan Bloom’s seminal book on the subject, American Wasteland, encapsulates the common sentiment: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It). That’s the explicit ethical command: We have to do something about it. Its corollary judgment is that people who do nothing and continue to throw away food are wasteful and indifferent.

But a new study conducted by Jayson Lusk, distinguished professor and head of Purdue’s Department of Agricultural Economics, shows that most people who throw away food are actually making rational choices based on a cost-benefit analysis. They’re not just lazy jerks!

As part of a study published in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, Lusk and fellow researcher Brenna Ellison surveyed respondents to find out how they’d react to various food leftover situations. Their results found that people weigh multiple factors in deciding whether to keep or throw away food, including wastefulness, time constraints, and the likelihood that the leftover food will make them sick.

“A lot of the discussion around food waste had been couched in moral terms, that waste was a sin,” Lusk told a science research writer at Purdue University in an article published on phys.org. “Food waste can be a result of a mistake or inefficiency, but in a lot of cases it’s done for a very logical reason. Many economic factors are at play in deciding whether to throw food out.”

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His research shows that respondents weighed multiple variables—whether a meal was prepared at home or in a restaurant, the cost of the meal, how much was left, and whether the participants had already planned the next day’s meals—when reaching a decision about throwing away food.

Focusing on food waste as an issue of behavioral economics rather than morality might suggest new solutions to the pressing problem, or offer new incentives to minimize food waste that haven’t been thought of. In the meantime, society will continue casting judgmental stares at people scraping plates into the garbage.