Environmental benefits of food-sharing economies dependent on use of money saved

TAU and Ben-Gurion University study finds digital sharing economies have mixed record of success in reducing environmental harm

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Researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev explored the true benefit of digital food sharing economies and found that a significant proportion of the benefit to the environment is offset when the money saved is used for purposes that have a negative environmental impact.

The study was led by Tamar Meshulam under the guidance of Dr. Vered Blass of TAU’s Porter School of Environment and Earth Sciences and Dr. Tamar Makov of Ben-Gurion University, in collaboration with Dr. David Font-Vivanco. The article won the award for the “Best Article” at the PLATE (Product Lifetimes and the Environment) conference and was published on August 30, 2022, in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

Participants in digital food sharing economies dvertise and pass on surplus food items to others instead of throwing them away, presumably an environmentally-friendly practice that saves resources and significantly reduces harm to the environment. The researchers focused on the effectiveness of food sharing according to three environmental indicators: water depletion, land use, and global warming.

“Food waste is a critical environmental problem,” Meshulam explains. “We all throw away food, from the farmer in the field to the consumer at home. In total, about a third of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted. This wasted food is responsible for roughly 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and the land area used to grow food that is then wasted is equal in size to the  territory of Canada. That’s why it is so important to look for ways to reduce food waste and examine their potential contribution to mitigating climate change.”

“Internet platforms for sharing food are gaining popularity all over the world and are seen as a natural solution that can help tackle both food waste and food insecurity at the same time,” Dr. Makov adds. “While there is nothing new about sharing food, digitalization has lowered transaction costs substantially, allowing food to be shared not only within social circles of family and friends but also with absolute strangers. At the same time, sharing platforms as well as other digitally-enabled food waste reduction platforms can save users a lot of money. But what is typically done with these savings? Studying this is critical for evaluating environmental impacts.”

“Is it possible that at least some of the money saved is then spent on carbon intensive products and services that negate the benefit of sharing?” Dr. Blass says. “Here’s a small example to illustrate: Let’s say that for one month a young couple lives only on food they obtained for free through a sharing platform, but then decides to use the money they saved to fly abroad. In such a case, it’s obvious that the plane they will be flying in creates pollution that harms the environment more than all the benefits of sharing. In this study, we sought to examine this troubling issue in depth.”

The researchers chose to focus on the OLIO sharing app, an international peer-to-peer food-sharing platform, and specifically on its activity in the United Kingdom between the years 2017 and 2019. Combining models from the fields of industrial ecology, economics, and data science, they measured the benefits of sharing food using three environmental indicators: global warming, the depletion of water sources, and land use. To understand how OLIO users spend their savings, they used statistical data published by the UK Office for National Statistics on household spending by the COICOP (Classification Of Individual COnsumption according to Purpose) standard.

The researchers performed a variety of statistical analyses. In many cases, there was a considerable gap or “rebound effect” between the expected environmental benefit and the benefit that was actually attained. This rebound effect changed depending on the population and the environmental impact category. For the general population, 68% of the benefit was offset in the global warming category, about 35% was offset in the water depletion category, and about 40% was offset in the land use category. Furthermore, in households that used half of their savings for food expenses, the rebound effect in all categories increased to 80 to 95 percent.

The researchers conclude that the actual environmental benefits from efficiency improvements often fall short of expectations because infrastructures supporting human activities are still carbon intensive. As long as the savings are measured in money and the money is used for additional expenses, the rebound effect will erode the ability to reduce environmental burdens through greater efficiency.

“In this context, it is important to note that we also examined what the results would have been if the sharing had been conducted in 2011,” the researchers add. “A comparison with the findings of 2019 shows a significant improvement. The explanation for this is that in recent years, Britain has made great efforts to switch to renewable energies, and the impact of this is evident in the decrease of greenhouse gas emissions. The bottom line is, as our findings demonstrate, that we need to combine a transition to green infrastructure with green consumerism. Each of these individually will not achieve the desired and critical impact needed for humanity and the planet.”

"Sharing platforms as well as other digitally-enabled food waste reduction platforms can save users a lot of money. But what is typically done with these savings? Studying this is critical for evaluating environmental impacts."