What drives action on food waste?

By the end of the year, the hospitality and foodservice sector could be wasting £3 billion on food waste, the majority of which is unavoidable. That equates to about £2,100 per tonne. Every gram wasted is wasted profit. For those working on wafer-thin margins those figures should be enough to shock them into action.

But an exclusive report into the scale of the food waste issue specifically in the higher education sector suggests awareness is high but this hasn’t been turned into widespread action. The research, carried out by Footprint Intelligence, on behalf of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), unearthed a number of reasons for this.

On a priority scale of one to five, food waste ranked a 4.37 among the catering managers we surveyed. There is a discrepancy, however, between the importance the institution as a whole attributes to food waste and catering departments specifically – the latter seeing it as a higher priority.

Partly, this highlights the broad range of competing sustainability priorities that universities must juggle, with respondents pointing to energy efficiency, carbon footprint and food provenance as areas that can divert management attention away from food waste.

For catering departments, whose job is to manage the supply of food to the university on a day-to-day basis, waste understandably ranks higher on their agenda. “Every caterer is conscious of food waste as it’s wasted profit,” said a business services manager at a university catering for 30,000 students.

But cost isn’t the only driver for action. In fact, it isn’t even the principal one. Asked what drives action on food waste and cost comes in third, behind the environmental implications and regulation. Customers and voluntary agreements are fourth and fifth respectively.

The placement of voluntary agreements at the bottom and regulation much further up, in second, is significant. During detailed interviews with a dozen experts and catering managers, as well as three focus groups, the need for regulation on food waste cropped up time and again.

Businesses calling for new regulation may seem like turkeys voting for Christmas but our analysis shows a groundswell of opinion that laws are often needed to force people out of their inertia and into action.

One interviewee put forward a passionate case for it. “If the law changed, I would welcome it with open arms, it wouldn’t concern me even remotely. We like to be in a position where we’re setting a standard and if we’re missing a trick we want to know about it.”

The regulatory landscape is however only one five main challenges universities face when attempting to reduce levels of food waste, which also include student engagement and the generation of accurate data.

The final report, published next week, will cover each in detail, outlining where the issues stem from and the solutions needed both front and back of house.

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