Do you know that 70% of our students admitted to wasting food in our canteens? In fact, roughly 83% of all the trash from the canteens is food waste, either from the kitchens or from table scraps left over and tossed after meals. How do we know this? Fortunately, we have some dedicated HKUST students who don't mind getting dirty to find out this fact.
Last summer, a student-initiated survey discovered that 70% of our students admitted they sometimes wasted food in the canteens. Most of these students felt that the portions were simply too large. The survey was a great start in understanding the problem and led to the next inevitable question: how much food waste is there?
Getting the answer meant getting dirty and it was really dirty! The only way to find out the answer was to open the bags of trash, grab the waste, separate it into piles, and weigh it. On a warm day in March, the first four students put on protective suits, rubber gloves, and masks and started opening up trash bags and getting "hands-on" experience in waste auditing.
The students were an integral part of the waste audit project. Over those two months, they dug into bags and weighed the contents from all the nine food service outlets on campus. The students observed that the bags from the kitchens contained lots of food scraps as well as leftovers that were not eaten during the day, moldy bread, and other vegetable clippings not good enough to be served. Although the students expected most of the food waste came from the leftovers, it turned out that a very large amount actually came from the kitchens.
Over 20 students participated in the food waste audit and many of them participated more than once. They worked through leaky bags with stifling smells and very heavy, slippery and slimy contents. They did so in hot or even in drizzly weather. Although their ankles were bitten by the bugs and there were flies buzzing around their heads, they were still able to laugh through everything, make jokes, smile and enjoy the tasks as well as the warm company of their peers.
What did they find?
- In total, our canteens produced an average of around 2.5 tons of food waste on a weekday during the semester.
- Around 83% of the total waste generated from our canteens was food waste.
- Nearly half of the food waste came from kitchen areas. A sizable portion of post-consumed food waste was rice.
- After removing the recyclable materials, the remaining trash that was not compostable or recyclable was low.
- There is a great opportunity to reduce trash if we switch to reusable cutlery and reduce the packaging and the disposables.
The waste audit project gives us a much better idea of the situation and helps us plan for the future – including the purchase of a new composting machine. We realize that the "less rice" option in the canteens could produce a much better result in waste reduction than we thought if more people choose that option. We also learn that our HKUST students are tough and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.