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Social and environmental analysis of food waste abatement via the peer-to-peer sharing economy

Tamar Makov, Alon Shepon, Jonathan Krones, Clare Gupta, Marian Chertow

March 2020

Published in: Nature Communications

Food loss and food waste have environmental and social repercussions. Globally, food waste accounts for 8% of carbon emissions, 20% of fresh water consumption, and 30% of agricultural land use. At the same time, estimates indicated that 12.7% of U.S. households faced food insecurity in 2015 and 10% of U.K. households faced food insecurity in 2014. In high-income countries like the U.S. and the U.K., food losses occur disproportionately at the post-retail and consumer levels. Therefore, redistributing edible yet unwanted food from primary to secondary consumers has been proposed as a means of simultaneously addressing food waste and food insecurity. In this study, Makov et al. investigate the potential of the sharing economy to reduce food waste and produce environmental and social benefits or harms.

Makov et al. analyzed 170,000 postings on a popular peer-to-peer food-sharing app called OLIO. The analysis was performed for the Greater London geography. The researchers found that over 19 months, 90 tons of food waste were collected by secondary consumers and diverted from disposal, thereby avoiding 87-156 tons of CO2eq.

One of their key research questions was whether or not food sharing would induce greater travel and therefore incur greater carbon emissions than the carbon emissions offset by the reduction in food waste. To investigate this question, Makov et al. conducted an environmental analysis and based this analysis on six possible travel scenarios. The scenarios involved different combinations of driving with a personal vehicle, walking, and taking public transportation in order to collect food. Additionally, the scenarios factored in whether or not food collection involved two-way or one-way trips. In all but the worst-case transportation scenario — i.e. driving back and forth by car to make a single collection — the environmental benefits of food sharing outweighed the added climate burdens associated with increased transportation. Food sharing provides a net GHG benefit that is equivalent, on average, to 0.6% of a London user’s food-related emissions. In the environmental analysis, the worst-case scenario is highly unlikely given that there are only 0.3 cars per adult in the Greater London area. Far more likely, is the best-case scenario, which is based on the average London transportation mix. More research would be needed to quantify the environmental implications of food sharing in non-urban areas.

Who is it that benefits from food sharing platforms was another key research question of this study. Makov et al. found that food exchanges through the OLIO app occurred predominantly between users associated with lower incomes yet higher levels of educational attainment. In addition, they found that food typically moved among participants with similar income and education levels. These results align with previous research that shows that people are more likely to engage with strangers of similar status and level of cultural capital in situations involving free exchanges. Therefore, it remains unclear whether digital platforms for food sharing are actually used by and benefit people who are experiencing food insecurity.

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