University challenge

Written by: David Burrows and Nick Hughes | Published:

A new report identifies tackling food waste as a key sustainability challenge for universities but, as authors
David Burrows and Nick Hughes explain, it also demonstrates the shared benefits to be gained through collaboration between waste contractors and their uni customers

Supermarkets often find themselves in the line of fire when it comes to apportioning blame for the vast amount of food wasted in the UK. But the data suggests that foodservice companies must also accept their fair share of criticism. Research from WRAP shows that foodservice and hospitality businesses, incorporating contract caterers, restaurants and hotels, throw away 920,000 tonnes of waste annually, 75% of which is avoidable.

The education sector, encompassing catering for nurseries, schools, colleges and universities, contributes significantly towards this figure at a high cost to institutions often run on extremely tight budgets. Now, a new report has found that tackling food waste is firmly established as one of the key sustainability priorities for universities and their catering teams, and more than holds its own against competing agendas such as energy efficiency, carbon footprint and food provenance.

Getting to grips with food waste

The Tackling food waste report from The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), produced by Footprint Intelligence, sets out to reveal attitudes towards food waste in one particular sector of the foodservice and hospitality market – universities – and to underline some of the challenges facing universities looking to reduce food waste and highlight innovative solutions to these challenges.

Based on interviews and focus groups with people working within university catering as well as separate surveys of TUCO members and university students, the report identified that reducing front-of-house food waste is one of the greatest challenges facing universities, with 88% of TUCO members finding student engagement hard and 52% of students saying they didn’t always eat all the food they take.

Though the biggest challenge is front-of-house, there are clearly problems at the back door too, including:

• prohibitively high up-front cost of taking action to reduce food waste for universities operating on tight budgets

• difficulty in capturing data on waste which is often dismissed as too time-consuming or complex

• logistical barriers to waste reduction initiatives created by the diversity of university operations.

Disappointing response

Waste contractors will be interested – or perhaps disappointed – to hear that only 60% of respondents are happy with the way their food waste is collected and disposed of.

“We don’t know” was a common response when asked where their waste goes. But that doesn’t mean there are no examples of contractors and caterers working closely together. “The waste contractor gives bespoke information as requested and I’m very happy with the contract,” says one food and beverage manager. “We might want information on where it’s going, how far, how much it’s costing; they can give us any additional information about environmental impacts.”

Others should take note, because more and more caterers are likely to start asking similar questions. One business services manager at a 10,000-strong campus told us that he wanted to use firms that “give us hard and fast audits of our waste”. This is because they want to use the data to identify hot spots where further reductions can be made and to better train staff.

Indeed, 79% of respondents say their employees are on board with reducing food waste, but feedback and consistent monitoring can ensure any improvements are long-lasting rather than short-lived. This isn’t happening, though: a shade over half (52%) of the businesses surveyed measure all their food waste, for example.

The absence of data on where waste is coming from is a major frustration for many. This comment from a business services manager highlights where many are currently: “Every caterer is conscious of food waste as it’s wasted profit. We don’t know the amount of food waste that is going into general waste as opposed to the food waste bin, and we’re not doing very much about that at all.”

The diversity of the average university’s catering operations adds a layer of complexity – there can be up to 20 different operations on one site – as can the ebb and flow of students. This is why operators could do with a helping hand from waste contractors.

North of the border

In Scotland, they’ve been forced to – tougher regulations on waste now require many businesses to separate food waste for collection. The report identified a groundswell of support for similar mandatory measures to set a level playing field for England and force people out of their inertia on food waste: 74% of survey respondents say regulation would drive further action on food waste in the sector.

To date, voluntary agreements have been the favoured route for tackling the waste generated by foodservice companies in England, with WRAP’s Hospitality and Food Service Agreement the standout programme to help businesses. This has now been merged with the longer-standing Courtauld Commitment – which was aimed at retailers and manufacturers – in a super-agreement called Courtauld 2025.

Research for the report was carried out before the new scheme was launched, but caterers are clearly sceptical about the impact of industry-led initiatives: voluntary agreements rank bottom of the drivers that spur this sector into action. One area where foodservice firms could do with a helping hand via Courtauld 2025 is redistribution.

Diverting as much unsold but perfectly edible food as possible to people who need it is a hot topic. If the food is packaged it can make life easier. Caterers dealing in unpacked and precooked food see the merits – ethically and socially – of redistribution, but feel they are faced with far greater health and safety risks than their grocery cousins. In the report, we conclude that these barriers could be mental rather than legal, however.


So what is the top driver for those taking action on food waste?

Perhaps surprisingly it isn’t cost. There is a general appreciation that managing food waste more effectively can save money – both in cutting the cost of buying food and the cost of disposing of it – but we found significant barriers to realising these savings. Even the separation of food waste for collection was being questioned by some. One catering operations manager who pays the same price per kilo for food waste as general waste states that there is no incentive at all to separate the two waste streams and he only continues to do so because it is the right thing to do.

Despite the myriad challenges faced by the university sector, we also found some innovative solutions to food waste reduction. These include the use of apps that allow students to provide feedback on meals and initiatives whereby props, such as bags of sugar, are displayed prominently to demonstrate the volume of food being wasted. Forward-thinking universities are also separating out food waste from regular waste and investing in training to eliminate contamination of the two different waste streams, while others are investing in the latest digital systems to measure their food waste and pinpoint the hot spots.

Indeed, in many cases universities are overcoming the challenges they face by implementing their own innovative food waste reduction initiatives – regardless of the legislative landscape. A meticulous approach to the issue at one university led to food waste falling from 4,620 kilos in the last three months of 2014 to 3,999 kilos in the same period last year – and they sold almost 20,000 more items. In anyone’s books, that’s good business.

David Burrows and Nick Hughes are freelance writers and researchers specialising in environmental and food policies. They co-wrote the TUCO report and have compiled reports for businesses and NGOs. They can be contacted at and

The full report is available at

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