Food Waste Management In A Pandemic

PhD student Nicholas Davison has been exploring the impacts of Covid-19 on food waste management at the University.

Nicholas has been involved in the University’s Living Lab for Food Waste since he began his studies in the Bioenergy Centre for Doctoral Training in 2017. Nicholas is looking at the optimisation of food waste in universities, with the University of Leeds as one of his case studies.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on many aspects of life, and food waste management is no different, with significant changes to generation, composition and logistics. Here Nicholas tells us about how and why he is assessing the impacts of Covid-19 on food waste at Leeds and shares what he has found so far.

What does the research involve?

This research involved looking at the general impacts of Covid-19 on food waste management as reported in the literature and assessing data on food waste generation post-Covid-19 at the University. Insights were also gained from the University’s waste contractors, Residential Services and Catering Services, in particular those involved in food waste management at Devonshire Hall student accommodation.

What have been the general impacts of Covid-19 on food waste?

Covid-19 has affected food waste generation in the household and catering setting, it has also thought to have changed the composition of food waste by altering what we eat, as well as bringing up a range of logistical challenges due to Covid restrictions.

There was an initial increase in food waste in some countries when lockdown restrictions were imposed, believed to be caused by a rise in panic buying and food hoarding. In the hospitality sector, short-notice closures led to surplus food and drink, with vast quantities of beer and milk, in particular, being wasted. In comparison, there were reported reductions in commercial food waste, with offices shutting and more working from home. In addition, after the additional rise, household food waste has been reported to have reduced with links to people having more time to effectively plan and cook.

This variation and uncertainty have posed significant logistical challenges in collecting and treating food waste, compounded by limitations on movement through pandemic restrictions.

Has the pandemic changed what we are eating and throwing away?

Many changes have been observed during lockdown concerning diets and food waste composition. Overall food consumption is up by around 6%, with a reduction in beverage consumption and slight increases in the amount of eggs and red meat, and substantial increases in the purchasing of plant-based foods including processed vegetables, fruits and nuts, as well as pasta and rice. Overall, the post-Covid diet has been assessed to be a less nutritious and more energy-rich diet. The altered diet has been calculated to have a significantly greater impact on the environment, with greater global warming potential, land use and water consumption as well as an increase in the generation of food packaging.

Is the pattern the same here at Leeds?

Between March and August 2020, a relatively small number of students remained in their University accommodation, including Devonshire Hall. The numbers returning in September were slightly down on a ‘normal year’.

  • As students started to leave, catering was scaled down
  • After the March 2020 lockdown, many canteens shut and Catering Services was running at limited capacity
  • Between April and July, the University catered for a significantly reduced number of students so food waste fell significantly
  • In August, a gradual reopening of the canteens began, while food waste levels increased slightly
  • In September, food waste levels rose to above pre-Covid levels, as the majority of students returned and full catering resumed
  • There was a reduction in food waste generation of over 75% in the most affected months between March and September 2020

What changes did you observe to catering at the University during the last year?

The catering teams had to adapt quickly and significantly with all areas needing to be formally assessed and signed off as Covid-safe before operating. Customer flow routes have all been changed to ensure social distancing throughout the journey through the outlets, outdoor queuing systems have also been created with sanitising stations at the doors and staff numbers reduced to enable safe working. In addition, food suppliers have had limited stocks which, in turn, has determined menus choices.

In terms of food waste, the chefs use batch cooking, smaller display dishes have been adopted so that less quantity of each dish is on display at a time, and food offers have been changed with less “build-your-own” offers and more ready to go options (to increase customer flow rate), as a result of the changed footfall and need to move customers through quickly.

Can you tell us more about the impacts on Devonshire Hall specifically?

The canteen closed from March to September, whilst Residential Services provided delivered meals from central Catering Services. Food waste generation was so low that collection became unviable. Since September, the Devonshire Hall canteen has been running at reduced capacity, with fewer incoming students opting for a catered contract, and many of these opting to be served meals in their rooms. Significantly less food waste was reported at the canteen as lower numbers made it easier to control production. Conversely, there was a significant rise in food packaging waste due to meals being delivered to rooms. Positively this waste is compostable as part of the teams drive to remove plastic packaging.

For self-catered students, the food waste in March 2020 followed similar patterns to the national picture, with an initial increase likely caused by panic buying. Since students returned to the Hall the key challenge has been a delay in getting food waste bins rolled out due to Covid-19 related health and safety challenges. Residential Services have however been able to collect unused non-perishable food from all of the University residences and successfully donated more than 565 kgs. of food to the Horsforth Food Hub between March and August 2020.

Keep up to date on the latest news

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We use the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to guide our activity. This food waste research is linked to the following SDGs:

  • Goal 2: Zero hunger
  • Goal 12: Responsible consumption & production
  • Goal 13: Climate action

Find out more about our impact on the SDGs.