“Nexus Thinking” promises a new way of approaching water–energy–food (WEF) crises (see Scott & Larkin, forthcoming). Initial responses have focused on macro-scale, city-to-national-to-international interdependencies of WEF supply systems. What happens when we transfer nexus thinking to resource consumption, and to the much more intimate scale of the home? In particular, what understandings can be gained if nexus thinking is combined with recent insights into home resource consumption arising from research on social practices and the geographies of household sustainability? Aimed at an interdisciplinary and policy audience, this paper explores these questions and what they mean for interventions in WEF resource production and consumption. It does so through an account of WEF consumption in the domestic kitchen, focusing on reducing disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) to sewers.
Prompted by mutual interests in understanding the constitution of domestic demand across the “nexus” of water, energy and food, the authors undertook two research projects which underpin the argument of this paper (see Acknowledgements). The first involved a series of facilitated multi-stakeholder workshops taking stock of the existing state-of-the-art in home practices research. These events highlighted how policy-makers and researchers alike work in resource-specific silos concerned with water, food, waste or energy. Moreover, though interested in how previous research sheds light on the details of different WEF-demanding home practices, workshop participants were unsure how such insights could shape programmes to influence these practices and their socio-material circumstances.
These insights informed our second research project in which we focused on the kitchen as a site of WEF resource transformation to examine how social practice theory could reframe key WEF nexus policy challenges. To these ends we worked with four UK policy and delivery , with each identifying one “live” policy issue that crossed two or more domains of the WEF nexus. Around each issue, we synthesised existing evidence, focusing on generating new ideas about interventions relevant to their identified policy goal. The partners and issues identified were:
1. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS): energy use, flexibility and domestic food practices;
2. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra): household food waste and kitchen practices;
3. Food Standards Agency: food waste, food safety and kitchen practices;
4. Waterwise: fats, oils, grease (FOG) and kitchen practices.
In this paper we describe and reflect on the findings of this project, illustrated through the example of FOG disposal. FOG – released from food during cooking and disposed of via the kitchen sink – combines with other products like wet wipes, solidifying as “fatbergs” within the sewer system. As emphasised by a number of recent high-profile incidents (Ratcliffe, 2015; Taylor, 2017), “fatbergs” can lead to sewer blockages and flooding, causing ongoing problems for UK water companies. FOG represents a meaningful focus for nexus inquiry: it is an outcome of food practices, it involves the mixing of waste food with water and other disposed products, and requires substantial water and energy to deal with once in the sewer. While FOG problems originate with food, they are predominantly tackled within the water industry. Potential alternative interventions lie in engagement with the waste disposal and energy sectors (e.g., converting waste fats to biofuel).
This paper opened with the assertion that challenges related to the interdependencies of water, energy and food arise not only in the supply of these resources, but also in their consumption within the home. Taking and applying insights from a well established literature on home practices and how they create demand for resources, we have worked through a case.
- Changing practices in the kitchen: Aims to influence the social practices within the kitchen directly. This involves taking opportunities to make water and food disposal infrastructures more “visible”, developing understandings of where FOG is produced through household routines, recognising the rhythms of daily life, appreciating diversity within and between households, and working with cultural conventions.
- Changing systems to shift practices: Aims to make changes in wider systems in order to influence and reconfigure practices within the home and kitchen, for example, innovation within the food supply and food disposal systems. System design considers flexibility, convenience and reliability of provision; takes seriously how the messy nature of decomposing food impacts on disposal.
- Distributing responsibility: Designing and implementing interventions that consider multiple infrastructural and resource implications, requiring collaborative working across policy domains and public/private/voluntary sectors; e.g., waste governance, energy-water companies collaborating for waste resource recovery for biofuel. Reconfigures systems of practices.
© 2018 The Authors. The Geographical Journal published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers).