Ditching trays and supersize plates from canteens and restaurants could help combat the climate emergency by significantly cutting food waste, Zero Waste Scotland has said. The publicly-funded non-profit body is urging organisations from universities to hotels to consider ditching food trays and downsizing dishes.
Experts at Zero Waste Scotland issued the call recently as they published new research highlighting the fact that a key cause of food waste is people literally having too much on their plate.
Removing food trays and reducing plate sizes makes it easier for people to avoid taking, or being served, more food than they either want or can eat.
Zero Waste Scotland’s research at the University of St Andrews investigated the different reasons why young people, especially students, waste more food than other age groups.
The study at St Andrews suggested that students waste on average £273 worth of food per year. One of the key causes reported by students was simply having too much food.
Publication of the findings coincided with a decision by St Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university, to remove food trays from its hall cafeterias as part of continuing work to tackle waste and carbon emissions.
Cat Acheson, Zero Waste Scotland study author, said: “Our results highlight that avoidable food waste is a big problem among the student population, adding to evidence showing that 18 to 25-year-old students in particular waste more food than other demographics.
“The St Andrews study highlights the fact that students often end up with an over-abundance of food, whether from taking too much in catered halls of residence or buying too much in supermarkets.
“There are many complex factors behind this, including lack of food management skills, and perceptions of food value.
“However, university catering teams can use simple interventions like removing trays from dining halls or reducing plate sizes to ‘nudge’ students towards only taking as much food as they need.
“This can reduce the amount of food that gets wasted unnecessarily and the carbon emissions which that generates.”
In Scotland households collectively throw out nearly 600,000 tonnes of food each year, costing over £1 billion. It is suggested that most of this wasted food could have been eaten if meals were planned more effectively.
Preventing avoidable food waste could save the average Scottish household £437 per year. In terms of carbon emissions, it would have the same impact as taking one in four cars off the road.
Iain Clunie, Zero Waste Scotland Food and Drink Programme Manager, said: “All these scraps from people’s plates which they didn’t want, or have enough room for, pile up to form a mountain of wasted food.
“Wasting good food not only loses its nutritional value, it also wastes the water, soil, nutrients, work hours, energy, transport - and plastic packaging - involved in producing and selling it.
“And when our leftovers end up in landfill, they rot and emit methane, which is far more harmful in the short term to our climate than carbon dioxide.
“While previous research has shown that young people waste more proportionately than other age groups, we all waste food.
“We know that food waste is a big problem in educational institutions and also in the hospitality sector. Our new study provides further evidence of this.
“Getting rid of trays and oversized plates everywhere, from university halls to hotel buffets, is an effective and relatively easy way to significantly reduce food waste and the emissions it generates.”
Al Clark, environment officer at St Andrews, said: “We have removed trays from our university halls to make it easier for people to reduce the amount of food they waste because they have more than they want or need.
“Students and staff can easily go back for seconds if they find they want another serving.
“Taking trays away is a simple approach to the serious problem of food waste and the damaging carbon emissions it creates.
“While other universities have already done this successfully, we believe we are the first university in Scotland to do so.
“Removing our trays has already started to reduce food waste here and we expect it to make a significant difference. This move has been really well received by staff and students, who want to help combat the climate emergency.
“We were already planning to do this as part of our wider, ongoing environmental work. The Zero Waste Scotland study helped make the case for this clear.”
The Zero Waste Scotland study took place in 2019 and recruited 155 students at St Andrews, who each agreed to keep a food waste diary for a week.
Last year a study published in the US found that removing trays at an American university canteen reduced leftovers on plates by around a third (30 per cent).
An earlier Danish study also suggested that using smaller sized plates reduced food waste by roughly a quarter (26 per cent) in a self-service setting.
The United Nations has warned that a third of the world’s food is wasted each year.
If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest source of carbon emissions, the UN added.