When a recent study highlighted generational differences in attitudes to food waste, a large number of media outlets reported the news that millennials are the worst culprits when it comes to throwing away food and contributing to the 7.3 million tonnes of food wasted by UK households each year. The reason? Apparently an obsession with social media, Instagram culture and a ‘live to eat’ attitude are to blame as, according to the study, the millennial generation views food less as a necessity than as a social currency. But are young people really too busy taking pictures of their dinner to actually eat it? I don’t buy it.

Living to eat

The research that inspired the reports of wasteful, social media-obsessed millennials (which – full disclosure – includes me) was a 2016 study by Sainsbury’s, entitled Modern Life is Rubbish. This surveyed the shopping and eating patterns of 5,000 people, and found that over half of those in the 18–34 age group say they ‘live to eat’ rather than ‘eat to live’. It is an attitude which is apparently enhancing the disposability of food. According to the newspaper accounts, young people are more interested in photographing food for social media kudos than finding ways to use up their leftovers – some 17% of those surveyed in this age group admit to throwing away leftover food three or more times a week. The media reports that a preoccupation with making dishes that are pretty enough to share on Instagram, means that millennials fail to properly plan meals, buying more than they need and then throwing it away.

The issue of food waste among young people has also been recognised by the charity WRAP, which announced last month that its next consumer waste campaign will specifically target millennials. WRAP carries out extensive research into household food waste, and it, too, has found that those aged 18–34 generate more avoidable waste than any other age group, nearly 50% more than those aged 65 and over.

Why the waste?

Generation Y – as those millennials have also been dubbed – are supposedly a generation of ethically minded, socially engaged foodies, so why do today’s 20- and 30-somethings end up throwing food away? According to an article in the Guardian they’re a time-poor bunch “who do not understand the value of the food on their plate”, unlike those, for example, who grew up with post-war rationing.

However, WRAP acknowledges that in reality a combination of factors, play a part. For example, young people moving away from home may face practical barriers such as lack of storage space in freezers and fridges in multi-person households. As buying a property of their own is little more than a pipe dream for many of today’s under-35s, this is something that can continue to be an issue long after they leave university.

I spoke to a number of millennials about why they end up throwing away food, and Alex, who lives in Bristol, cited shared living as one reason food may be wasted in his household.

“You have a small fridge and little cupboard space,” he said. “You’re constantly buying small amounts at a time rather than doing planned big shops; you forget what you have, and stuff goes off.”

Other factors include busier lifestyles that make it harder for people to plan ahead, whether it’s because they’re putting in extra hours at work or changing plans at the last minute. At this age, many are also settling down and starting families, so must negotiate shopping and cooking for changing needs. Lois, from Brighton, explained that despite the best intentions to cook fresh meals for her and her family, things don’t always go to plan. “Having a kid doesn’t help,” she says. “Anything remotely healthy normally isn’t eaten and we get a tantrum to match. Plus, we have to eat dinner super early so he has time for bath and bed. With about 30 minutes to make something after getting home from work, oven food can be more appealing in the moment, despite a fridge full of fresh goodness – which then spoils.”

For those living in urban or suburban areas, how much food goes uneaten is also dependent on local provision. Rather than doing big family shops, young urbanites are more likely to pick up items as and when they need them at a small in-town supermarket. Often, these shops don’t offer the option to buy loose fruit and veg or food in small portion sizes, a single pepper or a small tin of beans, for example. Scarlett, who lives in Bristol, identifies this as a factor that sometimes leads her to throw away food.

“l struggle to eat an entire bag of carrots, kale or spinach when I live alone,” she says. “Luckily, I now live near a proper grocer who lets me buy small amounts.”

The younger generation are, undoubtedly, becoming hungrier for exotic tastes and more likely to experiment with different foods. Two of the people I spoke to said that they sometimes buy ingredients for a specific recipe but then fail to use them up later, and this echoes the Sainsbury’s survey, which found that 58% of 18-to-34-year-olds admit to doing the same.

Judging by the millennials I spoke to, however, it’s not just the Baby Boomer generation who “know the value of the food on their plate”. A number of the people I asked said they don’t throw away any food unless it’s beyond salvageable. “I’m actually really good and try to eat everything even if it’s a little past the best before date,” says Kat, another Brighton resident. “So, if it’s not visibly rotten I’ll eat it. I freeze a lot too.”

And James, in London, says that rather than throwing food away, he’ll find creative ways to use up leftovers. “I cooked up some bubble and squeak this week and am always up for bread and butter pudding if the bread is stale,” he says.

Of course, there is bound to be huge variety in the opinions of those who fall within the millennial age group. Between the ages of 18 and 35, a person’s attitudes to food, waste (and pretty much everything else) are liable to change significantly, as Si from Brighton describes: “Compared to my younger self, I now plan what meals I’m going to make, buy appropriate food, check dates. Being older, you also know yourself better as to what you will actually use and are less likely to be undone by good intentions and under- or over-estimations.”

Part of the problem – or part of the solution?

These opinions, while not meant to be representative of a whole generation, do highlight some of the different factors that lead to food waste. Millennials, it seems, throw away food for a myriad of reasons; but how can they be supported to reduce the amount that ends up in the bin? I think the solution may lie with the millennials themselves, and the social media so maligned by the press reports.

Dubbed the ‘inspiration generation’ by the creative agency Haygarth, Generation Y have an unprecedented amount of information at their fingertips and a hunger to learn. As Haygarth reports: “Millennials look at food on social media four times a day on average, and 13% of millennials share more than six photos of food they’ve cooked every week.” This presents a prime opportunity to engage young people in the issue of food waste via a medium that they engage with every single day.

Many food bloggers – such as Anne-Marie Bonneau (@zerowastechef) and Cate Bell (@cateinthekitchen) – are already using these channels to inspire their audience to waste less. A search for the tag #foodwaste on Instagram brings up over 60,000 results; over 1,000,000 posts are tagged #leftovers. Instagram isn’t the reason young people are throwing away food – but it might be the reason that they learn not to.

WRAP has already experimented with social media campaigns aimed at this audience. Earlier this year Love Food Hate Waste created dating profiles for fruits and vegetables, showing how to use up produce that may be past its best, and the charity will be rolling out more targeted campaigns this autumn.

It’s time to stop blaming social media for food waste and focus on harnessing its remarkable capacity as a tool for learning and sharing information. Once the millennials reach their 40s, there’ll be a whole new group of young people to scapegoat. It’s not just this generation that will need support to tackle household food waste, but the next, and the next, and the next…

Photograph: Nick Saltmarsh