Durham’s catered colleges have produced an average 266.8 tonnes of food waste annually since the 2017-18 academic year, according to figures obtained by Palatinate through a Freedom of Information request.
When compared with the average numbers of livers-in during 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, this equates to 60.11 kilograms of waste per student per year.
Collectively, the catered colleges have produced 532.79 tonnes of food waste during that period, spending £9.3m on food in the process.
In 2020, the lockdown between March and July saw a dramatic decline in both waste and spending.
Total spending on food by the catered colleges – Collingwood, University, Hild Bede, Van Mildert, St. Mary’s, St. Aidan’s, Grey, Hatfield, Trevelyan and St. Cuthbert’s – dropped from £3.5m in 2018-19 to £2.4m in 2019-20, a decline of 30.6%.
The total amount of food wasted by the colleges was reduced by just under 42.0% over the same period, falling from 277.52 tonnes to 161.10 tonnes.
Commenting on the findings, Nina Griffiths, Director of the University’s Operations, Colleges and Student Experience Division, said: “We share the concern of many over the amount of food that gets wasted and reducing food waste is a key objective in our environmental action plan.
“We’ve made great progress over the last few years but we know there’s more to do and we’re absolutely committed to reducing our food waste further across all our colleges and catering facilities.”
The data also revealed that the catered colleges spent an average of £554 per student on food in 2019-20, a small proportion of the fees charged for catered college rooms of £7,894 or £8,385.
Last year, St. Cuthbert’s – where students are split between catered and self-catered accommodation – and St. Aidan’s recorded the smallest waste figures at 7.8 and 12.7 tonnes respectively, whereas University, St. Mary’s and Van Mildert colleges came in the highest with respective scores of 21.3, 19.2 and 19.1 tonnes.
In particular, two colleges deviated substantially from the mean percentage decline in waste of 42.0%, with St. Mary’s – the second largest waster – dropping by just 16.7% and Van Mildert’s declining by 58.6%.
Indeed, St. Mary’s appears to be least efficient college for catering, and by some distance as well.
This follows their much-criticised provision of food to livers-in during the start of Michaelmas Term. In 2019- 2020, the college wasted 61.4 kilograms per liver-in – a figure 37.9% higher than the amount recorded – 44.5 kilograms – by the second-placed college, Grey.
St. Mary’s also saw a decrease in waste per liver-in of just four per cent between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years; this is vastly lower than the mean decline of 51.0%.
The college also spent the most on food per liver-in during 2019- 20, with their figure of £751 again being considerably higher than second place, Hild Bede at £634.
“The variation in the amount of food waste across our Colleges is due to a number of factors including the extent of commercial business in different colleges, such as out of term-time holiday accommodation and weddings, and centralised provision of catering for events across the University,” Ms. Griffiths explained when asked what lay behind this deviation.
When the outlier of St. Mary’s is removed, the mean spending by colleges on food per liver-in totalled £593, with Van Mildert’s spend per liver-in of £509 being the only significant deviator.
This data suggests that St. Mary’s catered offering is exceptionally wasteful, both in terms of spending and tonnage.
In terms of spending, there were again only two colleges which deviated significantly from the mean percentage decline of 30.6%, but such deviation was far less pronounced. Collingwood recorded a decline of just 22.6%, while University slashed their spending by a larger margin of 37.5%.
The most efficient colleges in terms of waste were St. Aidan’s and Hatfield, who wasted 33.0 and 33.6 kilograms of food per liver-in compared to a mean of 47.1 kilograms.
St. Cuthbert’s and University were excluded from all per liverin calculations due to the lack of available data on how many of its students were catered and how many were self-catered.
Student environmentalist group EcoDU told Palatinate that whilst there have been efforts by the University to put in place a comprehensive food waste disposal plan, “there is clearly more work that needs to be done in order to tackle food waste in college.”
“It is surprising that St Mary’s in particular has such a high level of food waste, especially after the considerable effort from the University to have a centralised catering service,” they continued.
“Clearly implementation of University policy is not even across the board.
“Considering the lack of willingness by college management to put in place student-led programmes such as selling leftover food to livers out, there is definite doubt about whether food waste is likely to decrease in future.”
In the University’s response to Palatinate’s findings, Ms. Griffiths said, “In recent years, we have introduced a number of actions to reduce the environmental impact of food waste, including turning food waste into biogas and converting fats, oils and greases into biofuel. We collect and analyse data on when and what students are eating to ensure optimum amounts are purchased.
“To make this process more efficient, we are currently investigating the purchase of a new catering purchase system which could provide even more accurate data to our chefs to support more precise purchasing of ingredients and amounts.
“Our annual Waste Awareness Week, including the ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ challenge helps to encourage students to reduce their food waste as part of an overall education drive for students to only take what they plan to eat.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have also started donating any excess food to local food banks and charities such as Feeding Families who support people with emergency food boxes.”
Image: Beatrice Law