Americans throw out more than a third of their food supply, costing billions of dollars every year. To make matters worse, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) found most people think they’re wasting less food than the national average. Their study, published in PLOS ONE, is the first country-wide consumer survey to highlight food waste and the misconceptions surrounding it.

“Americans perceive themselves as wasting very little food, but in reality, we are wasting substantial quantities,” the study’s lead author Dr. Roni Neff, director of the Food System Sustainability & Public Health Program at CLF, said in a press release. “It happens throughout the food chain, including both a lot of waste by consumers, and a lot on our behalf, when businesses think we won't buy imperfect food. The root causes are complex.”

Last year, researchers asked 1,010 American consumers about their awareness, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to food waste. After calculating the amount of food people throw out, fruits and vegetables weighed in the heaviest, making up most of the waste because of its perishability. Despite expressing general concern about their food waste, only 10 percent thought the impact waste had on the environment was “very important.” Survey respondents were more concerned and motivated to throw out less food when they thought about money they could be saving and setting a positive example for their children.

For those who composted, 41 percent were not concerned about how much food they were throwing out. Compost is a way to reuse food scraps, non-greasy foods, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg and nut shells, and other safely decomposable waste, according to The Earth Institute at Columbia University. It’s used in organic agriculture and can increase the water retention of soil, reduce the need for fertilizer, prevent the growth of weeds, and boost crop yield.

Most people threw out the food because of food safety concerns. Researchers recommend preventing waste by buying in smaller quantities in order to cook the freshest portions of food possible with the least amount of leftovers and waste. By only buying and cooking what they need, Americans can decrease the amount of money they’re throwing out of their pockets and off their plates. In another recent study published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, researchers identify the financial constraints of food waste in lower-middle class families and offer realistic, applicable solutions.

"Fortunately, most of the factors that lead to food waste, can be easily remedied by simple changes in food buying, preparing, and storing," Ph.D. candidate at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Gustavo Porpino, said in a press release. "Teaching home cooks efficient meal and shopping planning strategies and proper food storage techniques can have a significant impact on reducing food waste and saving money.”

Neff and his colleagues believe if food waste reductionists and educators focus on out-of-pocket financial savings, there’s a greater likelihood in consumer compliance. Food waste cost Americans $161.6 billion in 2010, which translates to 30 percent of fertilizer, 31 percent of domestic cropland, and 35 percent of clean water on food that was eventually thrown out.

“Consumer waste of food in the U.S. represents a powerful quintuple threat,” Neff said. “Reducing it may improve food security, nutrition, budgets, environment, and public health.”

Source: Neff R, Spiker M, and Truant P. Wasted food: U.S. Consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. PLOS ONE. 2015.

Porpino G, Parente J, and Wansink B. Food waste paradox: antecedents of food disposal in low income households. International Journal of Consumer Studies. 2015.