Food waste is an unavoidable consequence evident in all food systems throughout the developed and developing world. Globally it has been estimated that up to 50% of food is wasted amounting to 2 billion tonnes of all food produced. The global impact of such wastage is vast. Environmentally, millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide are needlessly created transporting food that ultimately ends up being binned, only to be further transported to landfill where further methane is created. 3.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide is produced for every tonne of food wasted, with methane having a four times greater effect than CO2. Socially, there are almost one billion malnourished people in the world and it would take only the food wasted in America, 40 million tonnes annually, to feed all of them. Economically, not only are producers squeezed to provide cheap food, consumers waste millions of pounds annually often with little penalty to retailers for throwing away unused stock. It is urgent than this global practice of wasting a resource, not only critical for humanity, but also under a growing pressure of uncertain supply due to climate change is addressed.
In the UK 15 million tonnes of food is wasted each year, of which more than 60% is deemed avoidable, with the higher education sector a key arena in which this figure can be tackled. The Higher education funding council for England has targets a 43% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, with a further 83% reduction by 2020. A reduction in food waste could make a significant contribution towards this target, however no information is currently recorded relating to the amount of food waste produced by the Higher Education statistical Agency, with one sole report estimating that food and green waste is 18% of total disposal. Crucially all Higher Education Institution’s (HEI) in the UK have a dual responsibility, firstly as sites of food waste creation, management and disposal, and secondly as actors of pedagogy in educating students and staff to find solutions to societies grand challenges. HEI’s are under pressure to act in a sustainable way due to leagues such as the People and the Planets Green League, evaluating HEI’s according to their environmental credentials. 454,588 tonnes of waste was created by all UK institutions in 2012 and it is clear that this sector needs to focus more in using their expertise to reduce their environmental impact.
Little research has been undertaken on Food waste within HEI, let alone on the attitudes and behaviours of those who inhabit this environment. With an interest in sustainable food systems, I had the opportunity, through a part funded Masters Project, to fill this gap. The aim of my research was to measure the extent to which food waste could be prevented using social media as a tool for behaviour change. Through this piece of research, I planned to first understand how much food is wasted; the attitudes and behaviours of students, academic and operation staff in relation to this waste, and finally implement a scheme to prevent food waste using social media.
From my research it was clear that food waste is not thought of as an issue as important as other social and environmental problems such as poverty and climate change, even proving to be less important than air pollution and deforestation which is understandable. By undertaking focus groups and interviews I established common food waste behaviours by students within the University and questioned what needs to be done in order to encourage this group to reduce their wastage. The lack of interest in the subject was reflected in background of my participants typically being environmental based students, despite my offering of a ‘free lunch’ to anyone willing to help. Their motivation for environmentally positive behaviour stemmed from either their own personal experiences or their interest in creating a more sustainable future. In contrast, motivations to reduce food waste arose actions related to the consumption of food such as cost, stating that cooking and eating the right sized portions saved money. Within the university, factors of portion size, taste, appearance, quality and price were noted as impacting upon the amount of food waste from catering services. Overall students pay little attention to food waste or engage with actions to prevent food waste whilst on campus.
Other than behaviour and attitudes, I also explored how universities managed food waste. Being unable to conduct an audit, due to several challenges of undertaking such a large task, I gathered secondary data from WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) reports and evaluated the University’s organisational structure and waste practices. One report indicated that 72% of the main catering outlet’s food waste (7.17 tonnes annually) was avoidable with a possible saving of 20 tonnes of carbon emissions and £6,202 per year. Their current practice of disposing of waste uses a ‘trim trax’ device which flushes food waste away through the water course. No separate food waste collection was undertaken although I was told plans to implement such a scheme were already underway.
The creation and management of waste is split between on one side, a private company under contract to provide catering services, and on the other the University who were responsible for waste collection and disposal. The main reasons for food waste was either the amount and quality of the food provided by such catering environments, for example too large portion sizes created waste, or the current practices involved in providing catering for meetings and events. For example after a plate of sandwiches is delivered to a meeting, if a portion is left over these must be thrown away due to food safety standards even if they are perfectly good to eat.
This is where my research comes into light. In order to find someone to eat such food, I embarked on a project to increase communication across campus matching up food that was perfectly eatable, but would otherwise be wasted, with the abundance of hungry students and staff on campus. Social media was chosen as a medium to convey these messages due to its encroaching role in our everyday lives, increasingly used to communicate with others. Using ‘Twitter’ as a platform, the application allowed users to send a ‘tweet’ of free food whether they were a member of staff in a meeting or a student eating lunch in the canteen, with specific rules set in place to only post eatable food items. The increasing use of such social media on phones facilitated people’s engagement with this, as well as harnessing the popularity of already established networks on twitter built up by the departments and groups within the University.
From the outset it was difficult to engage members of the university community with the application. Although it worked in practice few people posted food items to share. I had hopes the attraction of ‘free food’ would attract growing list of followers but this was not the case.
A particular barrier was they way in which we interact with food. For example in the case of a plate of sandwiches, there was concern over eating something that others ‘might have touched’. This lack of trust was not universal though but had exceptions where trust already existed. Food was shared within departments left over from meetings without using the application I created, although often staff felt guilty in taking too much food or taking plates of sandwiches from elsewhere in the university back to feed their department. Overall perhaps communication through social media is not as strong as personal tie and interaction face-to-face therefore leaving the factor of trust absent which is critical for sharing food.
The conclusion to be drawn from my research is that through increasing communication and re-evaluating practices related to how food waste is dealt with within institutions there is great potential to both reduce and prevent the wastage of food. I believe the situation at my study site to be very similar to the majority of universities in the UK, in terms of organisation, waste management practices and the attitudes of members of the University community. At a time when the HEI’s funding is being squeezed and there is increasing pressure over environmental credentials, implementing a workable plan to not only reduce but also to prevent the wastage of food should be a critical part of any University’s environmental action plan. Other schemes such as composting and anaerobic digestion that I have not had time to go into detail here about are also possible in order to reduce the amount thrown away. Schemes such as mine which aim at ‘prevention’ rather than ‘reduction’ are rare and there is little reason that this sector with its plethora of resources and expertise should be ignoring this issue.
By Jordon Lazell
Research Assistant at the Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University, UK.
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 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste: Uncovering the Global Scandal. London: Penguin
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 WRAP (2012) National waste analysis of Food and Packaging waste produced by the UK Hospitality and Food service sector .