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2.5 Tons - The Food We Waste

70% of our students admitted to wasting food in our canteens. In fact, roughly 83% of all the trash coming 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 for us we have some dedicated HKUST students willing to get dirty to find out.

Last summer a student-initiated survey led to the discovery that 70% of our students admitted that they sometimes waste 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: just how much food waste is there?

However, getting the answer to these questions meant getting dirty. Really dirty! The only way to really find out is to open bags of trash, grab the waste, separate it into piles, and weigh it. On a warm day in March, the first group of four students put on protective suits, rubber gloves, and masks and started opening up trash bags and getting some “hands-on” experience in waste auditing.

Over the last two months, students were an integral part of the waste audit project, digging in to bags and weighing the contents from all nine of the food service locations on campus. The students observed that the bags from the kitchens also contained lots of food scraps, as well as left-overs that were not eaten during the day, moldy bread, and other vegetable clippings not good enough to be served. In fact, even though the students expected most of the food waste to come from that 70% of students who admitted to leaving food on their plates, it turns out that a very large amount comes from the kitchens too.

One of the student volunteers Sharon Lau said, “It was distressing to see innumerable wasted food – from fresh vegetables and fruits to leftover food. The food we waste every day can feed hundreds of starving kids! While urging the canteens to offer food in different portions, let's simply ask for less rice or share meal with our friends to say no to food waste today!” 

By the end the food waste audit, over 20 students participated, and many of them more than once. They worked through leaky bags, stifling smells, heavy portions, and very gross slippery slimy contents. They did so in heat and in drizzle, and even had bugs biting their ankles and flies buzzing around their head. But in true HKUST fashion, they laughed through everything, joking, smiling, and enjoying the tasks and warm company of their peers. In fact, when it was all over, they had some serious bragging rights! 

What did they find?

  • In total, we produce around 2.5 tons of food waste from all canteens on average on a weekday during the semester.
  • Around 83% of total wastes generated from most of our caterers are food waste.
  • Nearly half of the food waste comes from kitchen areas. A sizable portion of post-consumed food waste is rice.
  • After removing the recyclable materials, the remaining trash that is not compostable or recyclable is low.
  • There is a great opportunity to reduce trash if we switch to reusable cutlery and reduce packaging and disposables.

Yutie Cheng, another student volunteer, shared that food waste audit was a challenging but rewarding task. It was a great opportunity for her to understand more about the dining behavior of HKUST community and come up with practical solutions to address the issue on campus. She advises everyone of us to be a wise diner! “Do not hesitate to ask canteen staff for less if we know we cannot finish the meal!”

Going forward, we now have a much better idea of the situation and will plan accordingly – including the purchase of a new composting machine. We also know that the “less rice” option in the canteens could produce much better results than we thought, if more people will choose that option. We also learned that HKUST students are tough and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.