Fighting Waste: UNSW and Ozharvest plan a better food future

19 Sep 2019
Lots of students waving

A Grand Challenges hackathon generated real solutions to the vast amount of unused food that our communities put into landfill.

As the world grapples with the waste crisis, a two-day hackathon event in early September brought together Business and Built Environment students and industry experts to brainstorm ways to combat the issue.

Jointly hosted by UNSW’s Grand Challenges program and food rescue organisation OzHarvest, students tackled the important question: How can we reduce residential food waste in high-density urban environments?

Research shows around 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year. Half of that waste is generated at home. 

UNSW Built Environment Education-Focused lecturers and event facilitators Lecturer Eva Lloyd and Dr Alanya Drummond wanted the event to increase awareness of how much food produced globally for human consumption ends up in landfill and generate feasible solutions to the problem.

“In Australia, we have a national target to halve food waste by 2030,” Dr Drummond said. “To quote OzHarvest’s Fight Food Waste campaign – change is required at all levels of society and it starts with changing our behaviour at home. With relatively low food prices, and constant supply, we have lost our connection to where it comes from, and its true value.”

Over the two days, 35 students from six teams heard from more than 50 speakers and mentors representing fields as diverse as recycling technologies, high-density architecture, social entrepreneurship, Indigenous food management systems, behaviour change and strata law.

Mayor of North Sydney Jilly Gibson and Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis and Clarence Slockee inspired students to approach the challenge from multiple perspectives. Humanitarian response expert Professor David Sanderson and founder of the UNSW Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology (SMaRT) Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla were other leaders.

“We need to connect people back to the food that they eat,” Mayor Gibson told the group. “Community gardens are growing at a rapid rate and I feel if people grow their own delicious fresh food, they are not going to throw it out. In my mind, if we can help people love fresh food, and be aware of where that food has come from, there will be less waste.”

Solutions with a community focus

The students’ solutions pivoted on four major behaviours to reduce food waste: look, buy, store, cook. Dr Drummond and Ms Lloyd were impressed that the solutions focused as much on community connection as they did on reducing food waste.

“The 35 students across the six teams developed solutions that ranged from a high-tech ‘smart’ garbage chute to sort organics from recyclables, to a mobile neighbourhood kitchen where you can learn indigenous recipes from elders,” said Ms Lloyd.

The winning team – Community Pantry – took home the $2000 prize for their method of storing and reusing food within high-rise residential towers.

“Community Pantry’s proposal involved a range of shared storage spaces on each floor to minimise wastage when your dry goods sit unused for long periods of time, coupled with rooftop community gardens for growing fresh fruit and veg, plus a series of market day events where neighbours could swap gossip and fridge leftovers to create a meal for the block.”

Change on a large scale

The student proposals will contribute to the next stage of the OzHarvest Fight Food Campaign.

OzHarvest NSW State Manager Richard Watson told the students: “OzHarvest really values your ideas. I will be taking them back to the management team because fighting food waste in the home really is the next port of call for OzHarvest.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the OzHarvest Grand Challenge was reflected in the hackathon’s steering team that spanned UNSW Built Environment (Professor David Sanderson, Dr Alanya Drummond, Eva Lloyd, Tom Richards), UNSW Business (Brigitte McKenna, Kristy Ryan, Haider Mushtaq), and UNSW Grand Challenges (Ballant Kojo Eyeson-Annan, Meryl Stone, Mariam Al-Baldry). 

UNSW plans to run another hackathon next year similarly focused on reducing residential food waste, as part of the Grand Challenge on Rapid Urbanisation. The Grand Challenges program was established to facilitate critical discussion on the biggest issues facing humanity.

UNSW currently has a target to reduce waste by 10% per EFTSL by 2022, set out in the new Environmental Sustainability Plan 2019-21.

If you would like to be involved in the UNSW OzHarvest Grand Challenge in 2020, please express interest here.