In Practice: why universities should focus on food waste

Michelle Ringland of drainage specialists Lanes Group discusses why universities must consider how they remove food waste.

Over the next fortnight, tens of thousands of people will pass through student unions, halls of residence and classrooms. It is the busiest time of year for universities, but the start of term also provides management with plenty of opportunities to get off on the right foot and to set resolutions that will serve them well in the years to come.

The subject of sustainability is high on the student agenda at the moment, with public opinion on environmental issues at its most talked about in years. This is partly down to the war on plastics debate that was ignited by the shocking images in the BBC’s Blue Planet II, illustrating the extent of pollution in the world’s oceans, but it has also been moved along by legislation such as the banning of single-use carrier bags and the use of microbeads.

Students are rightly concerned about the environment and are keen to play their role in protecting it, with an increasing number of university applicants researching the sustainability policy at different establishments before deciding which offer to accept.

The most recent People & Planet’s University League report ranked Manchester Metropolitan University as the top performing higher education institution in the UK, from an environmental perspective.

How can universities make sure they are doing their bit to protect the environment?

Outside of the more visible dangers like plastic packaging and issues like recycling, there is a hidden danger to the environment that lurks beneath the surface.

Items that are incorrectly flushed down the toilet often contain hidden plastics that are clogging up the nation’s sewers and waterways. These include products like tampons, sanitary pads, nappies, disposable wipes, condoms and a huge array of other foreign objects that do not belong down toilets.

When combined with fats, oil and grease (FOG) that is so often incorrectly poured down sinks and then later congeals, we end up with colossal masses called ‘fatbergs’ that block the sewers and are incredibly difficult – and costly – to remove. The hidden plastics also work their way out of the sewers and into our rivers, seas and oceans, harming marine life and entering the food chain.

This might sound far removed from the responsibility of universities and students, but there are immediate actions that both parties can take to make vast improvements.

Firstly, universities should display clear signage in toilets around all premises that state what items should and should not be flushed down the loos. Consider the 3 Ps, pee, poo and paper, which are the only safe items to flush.

Everything else, from tampons to condoms, should be disposed of in a bin. This leads to my second piece of advice for university management; it is your absolute duty to ensure there are adequate bins and sanitary disposal units in every single toilet, whether that is in a halls of residence, student union bar or lecture halls. If there are no bins then people are left with little choice but to flush items away.

Universities should consider how food debris is disposed of.

This could mean fitting signage in university halls that explains to students the dangers of pouring FOG down the sink. Induction and welcome packs should also contain this kind of guidance, so that students and residents have good habits from the start.

Universities operating catered halls should discuss this issue with catering staff and facilities management, as FOG can amass on a huge scale. There is legislation around how FOG is disposed of in industrial kitchens, so the ramifications of not doing this correctly extend beyond environmental concerns.

Cleaning staff should also be advised on how best to dispose of food debris and waste water containing FOG, which must never be poured down the sink. Consider sluice chambers and specialist drainage for doing this, as well as installations such as grease traps.

This kind of responsible approach to waste disposal will not only reap rewards environmentally, but will also save a great deal of time and money by preventing problems occurring further down the line.

Blockages are costly and some will inevitably occur due to irresponsible behaviour, at which point they can be fixed by drainage experts using technology like CCTV surveys to determine the root cause and high-pressure water jetting to dislodge and removal via vacuumation.

Prevention is always better than cure, and if it helps universities become more sustainable and environmentally aware this will pay dividends in terms of creating a more appealing place in which to study and invest.



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