Everyday purchasing decisions made by consumers at supermarkets have important implications for reducing solid waste, especially since functionally similar products are often packaged differently, with one version generating substantially more waste than another. To determine if environmental educational strategies have an influence on purchasing behavior, the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency, Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County, and Wakefern Food Corporation joined forces to conduct the Waste Reduction Through Consumer Education research project. The objectives of the project were to develop, demonstrate, and evaluate consumer education strategies for waste reduction.
Five different consumer education strategies were developed: countywide education, in-store shopper education, direct mailings, educational shoppers' tours of supermarkets, and financial incentives (i.e., coupons). Each strategy addressed environmental and energy conservation issues, as well as other consumer concerns such as cost and safety. To guide shoppers to specific actions, educational messages were organized around four central waste reduction principles:
The research was conducted at two ShopRite Supermarkets in Ulster County, New York. An innovation was the use of shopper identification numbers (for members of ShopRite's PricePlus Club) and supermarket scan data to track purchases and thereby measure changes in the waste impacts of purchases while maintaining shopper confidentiality.
At the outset of the project, 14 grocery product categories were identified that offered both less waste generating and more waste generating product choices and reflected one or more waste reduction principles. Both weight and volume of solid waste were assessed for all product choices within one brand for each of the product categories. Adjusting for recyclability of some of the packaging materials in Ulster County, an average weight of waste per unit (i.e., use or serving) destined for disposal was calculated and assigned to each of 484 individual grocery items tracked in the study.
Because early reviews of the stores' scan data revealed insufficient product movement for many of the more waste-generating product choices, a purposive sample, selecting for "bad" purchases, was drawn. During a 5-week baseline period, 1,457 cardholders at the two stores purchased 3 or more of 177 (of the 484 choices) individual grocery items identified as clearly more wasteful choices. The purposive sampling ensured that the study focused on shoppers who tended towards more waste-generating shopping behaviors and who could then be educated towards less waste-generating alternatives.
These 1,457 cardholders were then randomly assigned to one of four equal size groups. Overall, the project tested educational treatments spanning the continuum from general waste reduction background messages received by all shoppers to more targeted, focused approaches. All groups were exposed to the countywide education and in-store education. Three of the groups received different targeted treatments (direct mail, shoppers' tour, or coupons), while a fourth group served as a control. In addition to the purposive sample of cardholders, 1,178 cardholders were randomly selected and tracked for the duration of the project. This group allowed comparison of a random group of shoppers to those selected because of purchasing behavior targeted by the project for change. The random control group, like the purposive control group, received none of the three targeted educational treatments.
Four data sets were collected over a 9-month period: daily scanner sales data; selected demographic data for PricePlus cardholders; weekly price data on the products being tracked; and store data on marketing and product promotions. The scan data were grouped by treatment period and sorted by product category. Various statistical tests were applied to the purchase data for the product categories. These tests sought to assess patterns of change in the average weight of waste per unit of product between treatment groups and by treatment periods.
While average weight of waste for the 14 product categories fluctuated during the 9 months, ultimately no systematically meaningful changes in purchasing behavior could be identified. The expectation had been that successive waves of waste reduction education would lead to growing reductions in the amount of waste associated with shoppers' purchases within the product categories. At the same time, however, it had been assumed that such reductions might vary based on exposure to the different educational treatments or different socio-demographic characteristics of households. Close analysis of the purchase data revealed virtually no meaningful statistical differences between treatment groups or changes in behavior over time.
These findings suggest that broadly focused consumer education about waste reduction is not effective in the short term at changing waste-related purchase behavior. This outcome is consistent with consumers' tendency to rank price, convenience, and even brand name as more critical than environmental considerations in their purchase decision-making process. An analysis of the costs of conducting this project's education suggests that those costs significantly exceed potential avoided disposal costs. Such an analysis, however, fails to account for the avoided environmental costs associated with the original manufacturing or for any indirect impacts of the education, such as increasing receptivity to other environmentally beneficial practices like home composting. Therefore, in less directly measurable ways, waste reduction education may help to foster general awareness of the issues surrounding excess packaging and consumer responsibility.
This project underscores the significance, and the challenge, of consumer education concerning packaging and waste reduction. Solid waste issues involve complex technological, economic, social, and political judgments. In addition to this, consumer education involves much more than working to enhance consumer roles and choices in the private sector (e.g., the supermarket). It must also include consumer education about the public purchases made by citizens (e.g., waste management policies and systems) and about consumer potential to influence these waste-related policies, regulations, and practices in both the public and private sector. The route to waste reduction in the future likely requires a combination of voluntary initiatives by manufacturers and retailers, governmental intervention, and better-informed consumers.