Our Food Waste Dilemma and What You Can Do To Help

Grade 10 student Yoyo Z measuring food at the end of a school day in January 2021. 

We are frequently told to eliminate single-use plastics, take public transportation, and spend less time in the shower, among other things, to be less wasteful and save our planet. Yet somehow, many of us seem to overlook one of the simplest ways that we can reduce our negative impact on the environment: approaching what we eat in a sustainable way. 

In early September, 2020, Concordia high school students Yoyo (10), Anita (12), Lillian (12), and Iffany (12) attended an “Own What You Eat” food event hosted by Z-Rou, a local plant-based food company, to learn more about food sustainability. Alongside organic restaurant owners and food nutritionists, Yoyo presented to the audience about the environmental impacts of specific diets, and how one can make a difference through mindful consumption. However, the topic that interested the Concordia team members the most was the issue of food waste. Inspired, the four students formed a Food Sustainability Committee as part of the high school’s Global Issues Network club and quickly welcomed three new members: Mamie (10), Jaclyn (10), and Mindy (11). 

Later that month, Anita, Lillian, and Iffany also virtually attended a two-day conference hosted by Dulwich College Shanghai that focused on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #13, Climate Action. Over Zoom, they were given the opportunity to discuss how students might be able to decrease the carbon footprint of their schools. These conversations further inspired an exploration of food waste at Concordia. 

With the support of Mr. Baermann (Senior Director of Operations), Mr. Chen (Aramark's Project Manager), and Ms. Liu (Operations Assistant), the students developed an action plan that began with understanding the magnitude of the problem at Concordia. Along with Mrs. Lavender, they referred to data from a school-wide waste audit done by students in 2019 and decided to start gathering additional data themselves. Curious to see how current food waste data compares to previous years, they purchased a scale, toured the trash room on Mingyue Road, and started to weigh the school's food waste every day.

Our Findings

On average, we found that our school wastes 309.42 kg of food daily. In a 5-day week, this is a weekly average of 1,547.15 kg, which is about the weight of a midsize car! In the aforementioned Concordia’s 2019 Waste Audit Report, the weekly food waste total was 1,335 kg. This means that, despite the efforts of the 2019 group who tried to call attention to this problem and reduce our waste, we have managed to increase our food waste by over 200 kg per week in an 18-month period. On the bright side, this shows that we have been at lower waste levels before, meaning reducing our food waste is very feasible.

Furthermore, we also set up cameras at food disposal points to collect qualitative data. We discovered that the most prevalent types of food thrown away after lunch are carbohydrates and vegetables, and this is corroborated by students’ self-reporting in a food waste survey. 

Why is food waste problematic? 

As a GIN group passionate about the environment, we immediately looked into the environmental concern. In the world, about ⅓ of all food produced goes to waste. That is equivalent to about 1.3 billion tons of food lost or wasted globally every single year. Food uneaten ends up in landfills where the waste rots and emits large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane, which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide and plays a large role in damaging our atmosphere and worsening climate change. 

Additionally, it's not just the wasting of food. The production of the food that is wasted also has an incredibly negative effect on the environment. Every year, the production of wasted food generates the equivalent of 37 million cars' worth of greenhouse gas emissions in the US alone, not to mention the vast amount of water that is used and polluted in this production process as well. From production to plate to landfill, it is clear that the food we don't eat is terrible for our planet. Looking at our school's wasted food, we calculated that our school emits 80 tons of carbon dioxide and wastes 6 million gallons of water every single year from food waste alone. Once we discovered the immensely harmful environmental impact of food left on students' and faculties' plates at Concordia, we were all immediately motivated to do something about it!

Reducing food waste not only reduces our climate footprint, but also saves money. The money saved if we waste less food can be reinvested in purchasing higher quality, more ethical, and more sustainable ingredients, such as buying from small organic farms around Shanghai or purchasing more plant-based meat as a source of healthy protein in school meals. Schools like Nanjing International School and the Canadian International School Hong Kong have already worked with chefs and food researchers to simultaneously enhance food quality and decrease food waste at their schools. 

Lastly, the amount of food waste we are producing is also perpetuating an apathetic mindset towards over-consumption. The huge piles of food waste produced every lunch desensitizes students to the severity of our wastefulness. This detrimental mindset of taking much more than is needed and throwing away leftovers could also spill over to other aspects of students’ consumption and living habits, which goes against Concordia’s founding values of being active global citizens and stewards of the environment. 

Time for Change

In our classrooms and clubs, we talk about the world's pressing problem of climate change. We conduct research to understand these problems and utilize design thinking strategies to implement solutions. Yet, every day at lunch, we mindlessly waste our food and exacerbate the very problem we are learning to solve. 

To start a school-wide conversation about this problem, we first met with the senior council to present our data and propose and implement a few solutions. 

Firstly, we are establishing a line of communication with Aramark, our food provider. In doing so, we can ensure that the right quantity and right type of food is given to students and faculty. We will soon present to Aramark employees about the horrors of food waste and how they can help alleviate this problem by listening to students, not serving too much food, and reminding students to come back for seconds instead of overfilling their plates. 

Secondly, we need to facilitate discussions with parents, starting with The Focus newsletter, emails, and PSO involvement. In these discussions, we will emphasize to the parents that seconds are allowed. We will urge them to teach their children to advocate for their own needs by asking for seconds if they are still hungry after the first serving. This would not only teach younger students to become more vocal about their needs, but also encourage them to be more conscious about their consumption and waste. 

Lastly, we need to raise awareness among students and faculty on campus. That's where our video, this article, our posters and announcements come into play. We hope to increase student and faculty awareness as much as possible because, as always, sustainable change starts with mindfulness. 

If every single one of us just finished the food on our plate, we could easily eliminate our food waste. With over 300 kg of food waste produced everyday, eliminating it seems like a daunting task, but it really comes down to a simple decision made on the individual level. You can choose to finish the food on your plate, and choose to be part of a change. 

While most of these solutions are taking place in the High School, we are in touch with Middle School, Elementary School, and Early Childhood Principals as well, and we hope to create an action plan that is able reach the students and faculty in all parts of our school. School-wide, we are promoting awareness through problem exposure, which includes displaying the weight of our food waste every day at lunch. 

Our group is ecstatic right now. Just a few days after beginning our student awareness campaign, we hit a record for the lowest weight of one day’s food waste in all the data we have collected this school year: 183.85 kg, which is over 100 kg less than our usual amount! This is amazing and it is just the first of many records we hope to set. 

We want to remind you that since 2019, we have increased our waste by over 200kg every week as a result of a lack of sustainable and systemic changes. This year, our group is determined to gain support from all corners of our school and ensure that this doesn't happen again. For change to happen, we need to take action. In this case, we can:

1) only take the amount of food we intend to eat

2) eat what we take 

3) go back for seconds if we're still hungry

4) encourage our friends to be mindful and practice 1-3

With these mindful decisions and actions, we can all truly be stewards of our environment. 

Food waste for thought: let’s eliminate it.

The students who wrote this article and who are spearheading our food waste campaign are members of the high school Global Issues Network club.