Living Lab for Food Waste: Interview with CDT Bioenergy Students


Food waste is a global problem, and is becoming more of an important public policy issue as each year the UK throws away £13bn worth of edible food waste. This equates to an estimated 10 million tonnes of food and drink wasted yearly, 60% of which could be avoided. Where food waste is unavoidable, it is still important that sustainable food waste management systems are in place. This is especially important as the University is focused on creating sustainable infrastructure as a part of it’s Cities Research Theme and on leading industry research through it’s Food Research Theme. With this in mind, The Living Lab for Food Waste has begun to research and trial innovative solutions that address the food waste challenges on our campus, particularly catering waste from The Refectory. At the core of this project is the Centre for Doctoral Training in Bioenergy, where three students have been carrying out a feasibility study into potential technological and behaviour change solutions, including a University-wide ‘virtual food waste lab’ – a network of interdisciplinary spaces where Schools are researching sustainable food waste management.

 We interviewed these three CDT students, Hannah, Sam and Nick, who embody The Living Lab approach by bringing together expertise from a range of disciplines to work on food waste research. Their diverse academic backgrounds reinforce the holistic nature of sustainability research; Hannah, who recently completed an MSc in Climate Change and Environmental Policy, is interested in the social impacts whilst Sam specialises in sustainable engineering and Nick brings an environmental science knowledge base. Their research began in September and is culminating in a feasibility report that Hannah explains will “analyse which technology can be implemented on campus to deal with the food waste problem, to see what solutions are possible from a social, environmental and economic perspective.”

The utility of the Living Lab as a footing for investigation has been recognised from the onset; “It’s interesting to see how other departments are all working on similar projects, and I think without the Living Lab that could be overlooked and not utilised. I think with the Living Lab we can set up more dialogue between departments and hopefully build on expertise from the resources the departments have got. I think it will save time and improve results.” Although a relatively new concept for these researchers, the reality of a Living Lab – in that it brings together overlapping knowledge and skillsets – is clearly understood; the project encompasses expertise from engineering, chemistry, sustainable development and food nutrition. However, far beyond bringing research disciplines together, sharing best practice and streamlining resources, the team also recognise the Living Lab’s emphasis on getting students enthused early on in their studies and embedding sustainability in the curriculum, so that the knowledge base is there for future research. As Sam identifies, “although there is already a drive to get sustainability into the curriculum, we recognise that this usually focuses on third year projects; it would be great to get first and second year students engaged early on in the research they can potentially carry out in sustainability.”

“I think with the Living Lab we can set up more dialogue between departments and hopefully build on expertise from the resources the departments have got.”

Students have also been identified as crucial in terms of behaviour change; “We’re quite interested in trying to speak to people about behavioural change as well, within the waste hierarchy the first thing you want to do is try to reduce the waste, which comes under behavioural aspects. Trying to change things at a demand level brings in the social sciences as well.” There is also concern that without sufficient education as to what waste and recycling processes go on at the University, their research into technological developments might be less impactful; “We realised that the impression from a student perspective might be that the food waste collected is just thrown in a large compost heap, so to explain that it could be turned into electricity or fertiliser for crops might change people’s perspectives and then their behaviour.”

Hannah is particularly passionate about the opportunity to develop student engagement and education, as well as optimistic about the enthusiasm students can have for sustainable development if they are introduced to it in the right way, early on, and with sufficient emphasis on what they can do as individuals. “When I started I didn’t know that there was food waste being collected at The Refectory, I didn’t know that an anaerobic digester was an option. Students at the University will be interested in the sustainable solutions that could be put in place if they were only educated about it, it would be good to make students aware and get them talking about what research is going on. Right from the induction courses at the start of your studies students should learn about waste management and about their recycling options on campus.” The importance of conveying this message and talking to students is twofold, and – as Sam identifies – the benefits are shared by community and researcher alike; “Through some of the outreach that we’re doing we speak to a wide range of people on campus. Building on that skill of being able to speak to people face-to-face is important for engineers like myself to develop, it really helps us to get academic projects off the ground.”

One such area of academic research is desiccation technology. With investment in a desiccator, food waste could be reduced to 10% of its original mass, even with the exact same waste management regime in place. Sam clarifies the importance of this; “food waste could still be picked up by our waste contractors but it would reduce the carbon footprint from a transport perspective. With desiccation you reduce odour and problems with vermin so you can potentially store the food waste and then fill a whole truck when required, for example.” 

“Right from the induction courses at the start of your studies students should learn about waste management and about their recycling options on campus.”

Moreover, they recognise how the Living Lab approach aims for tangible change, and that theoretical understanding is best applied when it drives pragmatic change on an active campus testbed. What’s ideal isn’t always feasible and the team recognise this when it comes to the capacity of anaerobic digesters to deal with food packaging; “You’d need something really expensive, robust and intricate on site to deal with packaging as well. If there was to be an AD, it would have to deal only with waste streams from kitchens, as it would be difficult to implement bins round the site that weren’t contaminated with packaging.” Alternatively, Sam believes that using the campus as a testbed on smaller scales  – a core tenet of the Living Lab ethos –  is an attractive prospect in the short term:  “We’ve already got waste contracts in place to fulfil, so we think perhaps in the short term a pilot of anaerobic digestion on a small scale can prove that the concept works and then we can see if it’s feasible at a campus level in the long term. In terms of addressing the Living Lab goals whilst beginning to develop a proof of concept, a pilot scheme would be a good next stage.”

It is this sort of scheme which will be discussed in the feasibility report, a consultancy style brief with recommendations to the University based on the data they have collated and analysed. Individually, the multi-faceted analyses of the project will be explored, as Hannah confirms, “I will assess the policy and social aspects of food waste, Nick is looking at resource availability at the University as well as the potential carbon reduction. Sam will report on the technological options on site on both large and small scales, from anaerobic digestion to desiccation.” We look forward to utilising their research as steps are taken toward more sustainable food waste management. Every Living Lab project – be it focused on developing technology, encouraging research on campus or assessing our impacts as a university – is a step towards a more sustainable campus, one that pilots solutions at a local scale as it tackles global problems. In the process of conducting research, creating feasibility reports and strengthening research networks, The Living Lab for Food Waste will make us more responsive and resourceful as a University.