The devil’s in the detail

Front of house: the biggest obstacle

The top thing we uncovered is the urgent necessity to challenge and change the attitudes of both staff and students in the ‘throw away’ culture of waste.

There will be some environmentally-conscious students who actively think about the food they waste, but 88 per cent of universities said that student engagement remains a major challenge. This is particularly acute when meals are pre-paid, with the attitude that more food equals better value. Compounding the issue are situations where caterers are required to provide several options, resulting in more waste if one or more isn’t popular.

So what approaches can we use to reduce the food waste from students’ plates?

  • Talk more and waste less
    • Ask customers if they want more rather than presuming that they do, but it’s not about telling them to eat less, more asking them not to waste food.
  • Shock tactics
    • Students, like most people, want to do the right thing. Bad habits are often the result of a lack of awareness rather than lack of responsibility – ask them to scrape their own plates, they’ll soon realise how much goes in the bin.
  • Translate less waste into better deals
    • Setting waste reduction targets will save money, some of which could be translated into discounts for students.

Cost: investing in change

Next on the list is cost, ranking highly as a prohibitive factor to cutting waste. Whether it be employing more staff, developing campaign materials or investing in new machinery, it is often putting management off making changes.

Through talking to you, we know that intentions are good but this often clashes with budget realities. What needs to be clearer are the cost implications that are attached to waste in the first place, both the cost of surplus ingredients and the high cost of disposal. The price of food waste per tonne in the Education Sector is £2,100. This is less than hotels and restaurants, but still a huge amount considering the wafer-thin margins involved.

There will always be reasons to resist change, but we know from talking to caterers that there is a desire to change, it’s about working out what the first steps should be and taking the plunge.

So how can we start to make changes in a way that won’t cost the earth? The easiest thing to do is look for the low-hanging fruit. This includes portion control and running staff training in best practice when it comes to waste management. It’s also important not to be blinkered to long-term savings by up-front costs, perhaps now is the time to invest in that composter!

Data collection and management

No matter how good your intentions are, it’s almost impossible to make any real difference unless you know exactly how much waste is being produced. This can, however, at times be a complicated task.

Over half of those we spoke to said that they measure all waste, however, many are unable to tell exactly where it originates from, given there are often 20 or more food outlets to consider. In fact, 83 per cent said that predicting demand is the single biggest front of house waste challenge.

Predicting demand hotspots requires an investment of time and resource to carry out the analysis, but there are initial steps which caterers can do to get things started. Communication and collaboration between sites is key, with buy-in essential from everyone, from management to front of house staff. Simply talking to customers and encouraging people to take notice of the food they are throwing away can work wonders.

The thing with data analysis is that it will take time, but the advice from WRAP is to keep it simple, all you need to start is a bucket and some scales. As a next step, engage your waste contractor to see what they can offer in terms of analysis. One university is even getting students involved, with undergraduates from the Business School undertaking a project to look at where waste is produced and how this can be reduced.

Operations and Logistics

The diversity of the food choices offered is great for students, but often a huge obstacle in terms of waste management.

What are the main challenges?

  • Multiple outlets - often there is no one central policy across sites.
  • The distance between sites often makes in hard for central waste facilities to be effective.
  • Contamination of bins due to lack of staff awareness, or as one university reported, night staff transferring waste between bins without consideration of contents in order to stay under the waste weight limit.

Environmental initiatives can be a hard sell to time-pressed staff in our sector. However, 79 per cent of respondents said they thought it would be relatively easy to get most employees on board.

The key is to keep reminding, retraining and re-inspiring teams on the importance of reducing food waste, otherwise early improvements can soon tail off.

Legislation: bring it on

Legislation is the latest tool that some countries are using to force a reduction in the amount of food that is wasted. Scotland has recently declared that businesses producing more than 5kg of food waste per week need to separate it for collection. In France, supermarkets have to repurpose unsold food by giving it to charities or other groups. England on the other hand, has traditionally favoured voluntary agreements. This has been met with a mixed response, but our survey respondents overwhelmingly believe that legislation is the only way to force people out of their inertia when it comes to food waste.

We all need to press for legislation, such as the pending food waste bill which will help create a level playing field in terms of food waste. In the meantime there are voluntary agreements such as WRAP’s Courtauld 2025 and there is very little to stop institutions collaborating with local partners to redistribute surplus food.

This is how they did it…

This study shows, for the first time, the true picture of the challenges faced in our sector when it comes to tackling food waste. Members are already making practical changes to the way they approach food waste and are achieving some brilliant results. Below are two examples of where catering outlets are helping to drive sustainability and change attitudes in universities.

Swansea University

Home to 16,000 students and 2,500 staff, Swansea University’s campus catering operates a variety of restaurants, coffee shops and hospitality outlets. It implemented its first sustainable food policy in 2010 and has since won a number of awards. As part of its commitment to continuous improvement, the University undertook a review of its catering operations, combined with waste monitoring procedures. This showed up key areas of food and packaging waste.

One of the major sources of waste was identified as the over-filling of plates. This is combined with the over-production of food - a common problem that many catering outlets have. The University also has a commitment to making the most of existing ingredients to contribute to its sustainability ethos.

So what measures did campus catering take to solve the issues identified by its review? The first thing was to reduce the size of the serving plates to 10 inches, which in turn had a positive impact on serving size. Alongside this it also trained staff in portion control and made sure they undertook periodic refreshers. Secondly, it introduced a food waste audit procedure which monitors operations and identifies major waste issues. Both these tactics led to the food offering becoming more sustainable, increased savings and consequently, the ability to maintain prices when raw material costs are on the rise.

Since putting these measures in place along with others, such as a greater use of batch cooking, making fresh gravy and stuffing from existing ingredients and cooking food closer to service times when customer numbers can be more accurately determined, there has been an overall reduction in food waste by 20 per cent. This translates into £9,500 per year saved in food procurement costs alone.

Next steps for the team include the sharing of best practice and looking into the redistribution of surplus food through local charities. The University is also opening a city centre café using surplus food from its outlets and educating the local community on health and nutrition.

The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester, ranked 5th in the UK and 35th in the world[1], has set a number of aspirational and environmental sustainability targets. Social Responsibility is at the heart of these aims and as a result, the University has developed an award-winning food waste reduction scheme, resulting in a dramatic reduction of food waste and associated costs…

In order to increase perceptions of satisfaction and value for money, catered students at the University were previously able to return for second helpings. Unfortunately, this freedom often resulted in excess food left on plates and students appeared to be somewhat disconnected from the issue of waste. Last year, a four week audit quantified the scale of food waste that was being generated from catered halls - and student plate waste totalled a massive 1.3 tonnes per week.

Following the results of the audit, a new strategy was implemented in September 2015 in order to reduce the amount of unnecessary food waste. Using insights from a study which showed that removing food trays from canteens can lead to a 20% reduction in food waste, the university’s catering team took the trays away and began to offer a variety of portion sizes, whilst still offering the same amount of choice to students.

To find out the students’ position on food waste and to help raise awareness of the issue, a questionnaire to 200 ‘catered’ students was carried out, which found that 88% of respondents would use facilities to recycle food waste if they were available. Responding to this, the University introduced a food waste-only recycling stream, which is then treated and used to produce gas for energy and fertiliser for crops. Students are also required to scrape their own plates into a new bin area, making them feel more accountable for their waste and freeing up members of staff to help the team in other areas.

These new strategies have been a huge success. The average weekly student plate waste has decreased from 723kg in 2015 to 527kg in 2016 - a massive saving of 27% - and the 2015/16 academic year has been predicted to reduce the amount of food waste by 6.7 tonnes.   Although students in catered halls are still welcome to return for second helpings, they are taking less, eating their meal, and often finding themselves too full to want more food.

For this reason, the number of ‘general waste’ bins needed for catered halls has fallen from 30 to 18, and the overall monetary cost associated with the collection of general waste has fallen. The kitchen food waste is also weighed daily, to ensure staff are monitoring and actively seeking to reduce excess wastage. As a result, the average weekly kitchen food waste has also decreased from 532kg to 511kg per week.

Looking further ahead, the University is currently developing more strategies, including a catered hall food waste competition where the total amount of food wasted by each catered hall is recorded every week, with a competition leader board at the entrance of each hall. The hall that wastes the least amount of food over a term will win a themed dinner service of their choice! The development of ‘Eco Hero’, an adult sized cardboard character, holding the leader board is also currently underway to add personality and fun, helping the initiative to stand out to the students.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_Ranking_of_World_Universities

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