But they feel guilty about it.

By Gillie Houston
July 22, 2016
© John Lund / Getty Images

As the food waste epidemic grows more problematic each day, a group of researchers claim they've pinpointed the psychological reasons Americans waste so much food. According to the study, published in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE, Americans may toss out 80 billion pounds of food every year, but only about 50 percent are even aware of the food waste issue.

Researchers from The Ohio State University set out to determine why it appears to be instinctual for U.S. consumers to waste food. "Generally, we found that people consider three things regarding food waste," study co-author and doctoral student Danyi Qui says: "there are practical benefits, such as a risk of foodborne illness, but at the same time they feel guilty about wasting food."

Qui, along with his co-author Brian Roe, a professor at the university, surveyed 500 people, who were representative of the U.S. population as a whole, to gauge their behaviors and ideas revolving around food waste. While they found that the number of people aware of the waste epidemic grew 10 percent from a similar study last year—to 53 percent—"it's still amazing low," Roe notes.

They also found that household patterns are a big factor in day-to-day wasteful tendancies. Of those surveyed, 68 percent believed that throwing away food after its label date has passed decreases their chance to illness, and 59 percent said they believed some food waste to be necessary for fresh and flavorful meals. These waste-favoring majorities are in stark contrast to the 77 percent who said they felt a sense of guilt throwing away their food.

Only 42 percent of people polled said they believed food waste is a major source of wasted money. This, despite the fact food waste costs $165 billion annually. While the researchers are hopeful that attitudes towards food waste can be turned around, a majority 51 percent of those polled said they believed it would be difficult to reduce their personal household waste.

Qi says the key to shifting these attitudes and putting a dent in the food waste issue is to "do things to chip away at the perceived benefits of wasting food... Our study shows that many people feel they derive some type of benefit by throwing food away, but many of those benefits are not real."

The researchers also believe a key to reducing waste is to remove "sell by" and "use by" labels from packaging. Some major retailers, like Walmart, have recently taken steps to do just that. According to Roe, the solution to food waste could be something incredibly simple and fundamental: "If we can increase awareness of the problem, consumers are more likely to increase purposeful action to reduce food waste."