Between Coffee Cups and Plastic Wrappers:

How Sustainable are UvA Cafeterias?

By Christina Kordes | Campus | November 23, 2021

Cover Illustration: A reusable coffee cup and beans in a nature depicted setting. Abhinava Reddy Gangula / The Amsterdammer

Campus Reporter Christina Kordes delves into the issue of optimising the sustainability of food and drinks offered at the University of Amsterdam from two perspectives in a discussion with the Eten & Drinken Project Manager and a student involved at the UvA Green Office.

The University of Amsterdam (UvA) offers students and staff food and drinks at 16 different locations. These are dispersed over the different campuses at Roeterseiland, Science Park and University Quarters in the City Centre. When checking the website, one gets the impression that sustainable practices are the top priority of the UvA’s food operators. However, there is a range of factors influencing the sustainability of the food offered on campus. 

During usual lecture times, a wide variety of food options are available, from sandwiches and wraps to Vietnamese street food. In addition to the food courts, most buildings have vending and coffee machines. Interestingly, the university does not actually run these numerous food locations itself. The UvA employs CIRFOOD as the main contractor in charge of all the food on campus. CIRFOOD then hires entrepreneurs to run cafés or restaurants with their own concepts. Guido Meijer, Project Manager for ‘Eten & Drinken’ took the time to describe to us the university’s role in all of this. He stressed that a great amount of time and energy went into research regarding food offered at the UvA. He explained that the University tries to tailor the food offered on each campus according to the preferences of their target groups and does so through continuous research while trying to make these foods environmentally sustainable. 

He went into more detail, saying that the university expects CIRFOOD to ensure the application of the university’s sustainability program. This program entails a five-year plan to increase sustainability at the UvA and HvA (Hogeschool van Amsterdam). Some of the guidelines in the programme include the reduction of CO2 emissions and a 25% decrease in packaging materials made from fossil fuels. Two of its main goals for the year 2026 involve reducing food waste by 25% and ensuring that 50% of food options offered are vegetarian or vegan.

While these are laudable goals, the actual path to reach them is not too clear. Ivan, an UvA student and member of the UvA Green Office says that we need more concrete action plans. “Things are moving because of the new programme, but the uni needs to install actual change.” A survey conducted by the Green Office found that, in one month, 120,000 coffee cups were disposed of immediately after use. While this also calls for consumer responsibility, Ivan suggests that “this is one aspect where actual ideas could be implemented. And these ideas already exist.” One example of these ideas could be a deposit system with reusable cups. This is when a surcharge is added to reusable cups that is refunded when the cups are returned. This policy is already in place, for instance, at the University of Wageningen.

“A survey conducted by the Green Office found that, in one month, 120,000 coffee cups were disposed of immediately after use.”

The two issues this debate often comes down to are financing and consumer responsibility. With regards to the financial aspect, many factors affect the implementation of sustainable actions. In the UvA’s 2021 budget plan, the university notes that they want to invest more money to increase sustainability. However, no concrete steps have been formulated. There is also the fact that the UvA does not operate the various cafeterias themselves. The entrepreneurs hired by CIRFOOD need to be able to compete with other establishments across the city. Therefore, the idea of making adjustments that might increase sustainability but also decrease profit does not seem very appealing to them.

The University and the Green Office both stress the importance of consumer responsibility, emphasizing that the individual choices the staff members and students make matter. Guido Meijer sees this responsibility as the most important driver in improving the sustainability of the food and drinks offered on campus. Once again taking the example of coffee cups, a solution to this is for everyone to bring their own reusable cup to fill from the machines. He says that “consumption patterns are hard to change and consumers move a lot less than institutions want them too,”  highlighting that a lot of UvA’s effort goes into making changes by raising awareness. Ivan appreciates this, but only to a certain extent: “It should also be the responsibility of the university to take significant steps to offer incentives for more sustainable behavior and not put all the responsibility on us students.” 

“It should also be the responsibility of the university to take significant steps to offer incentives for more sustainable behavior and not put all the responsibility on us students.” – Ivan, UvA student and member of the UvA Green Office

This entire topic is complex and influenced by many different actors and circumstances. Efforts to increase sustainability at the university, especially with regards to food and drinks, must be met with significant changes in order to create actual improvements. These changes need to be promoted by all the actors involved in the chain, from the university and the suppliers to the staff and students.

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