Carbon Canteen: My Initiative to Reduce Independent Schools Foundation’s Carbon Footprint

By Isabel Picazo 20 December, 2022

Shocked by ISF’s cafeteria emissions, Picazo, a student there, sets up the Carbon Canteen to help the school lower their food carbon footprint

Carbon emissions can influence water systems, destroy ecosystems & food chains; HK is the 7th highest GHG emitter per capita among 113 regions around the world
At my school cafeteria, only 3/60 meals were vegetarian but at ICS multiple veg options everyday which meant their weekly food related carbon emissions were ~1/3 of ours
ISF & Sodexo agreed to a 3 month trial of a daily veg option, the Carbon Canteen; cutting food emissions can be easy by making small changes over a period of time

The first time I realised the impact that carbon emissions had on the environment was when I was in 9th grade. Sitting in the Environmental Systems and Societies classroom, I gripped the edge of my seat as my teacher explained in great detail about how the accelerating increase in carbon emissions within the recent decades had a huge impact on almost everything on earth.

“How could [GHG] gas, something I couldn’t even see, cause so much environmental damage”?

I was shocked to hear how carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases had the power to influence water systems, destroy whole ecosystems and food chains. I remember feeling bewilderment in those moments. How could gas, something I couldn’t even see, cause so much environmental damage.

However, these perplexed feelings soon turned into a surge of motivation as I wanted to learn more about what I could personally do to decrease my carbon footprint.

Although this revelation was 2 years ago, it had been on my mind ever since…

Fortunately the summer of 2022, I had the opportunity to intern at CWR to do more digging on environmental impacts. However, the more I dug, the more I realised how complex and diverse the environmental issues were, as our whole society revolved around a carbon, water and energy intensive system. Everything, we did from turning on the lights to buying imported supermarket food emitted huge amounts of carbon.

HK is the 7th highest GHG emitter per capita among 113 regions

However, what shocked me the most was finding out from a 2019 Green Queen study that stated, “Hong Kong’s carbon emissions stands at 109 megatonnes annually, which makes the city the 7th highest emitter per capita among 113 regions”. And that emissions from internationally imported meat and dairy products contributed to 62% of the city’s total emissions. I couldn’t believe that the current food choices I was indulging in was in fact exacerbating the carbon crisis.

Importing beef to HK for a year = emissions from 24 coal power plants

Another report published by CWR early this year, Together We Can: 8 Habit changes for below 2ºC, also highlighted that 678,000 tonnes of beef products are imported into Hong Kong every year. And considering that 1kg of beef releases 36.4 kg of carbon emissions, the emissions from the yearly imports would equate to around 24,600,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

If you too can’t comprehend how big the figure is, it’s equivalent to the emissions produced by 24 coal power plants. This inspired me to rethink my diet. Even making small habit changes like giving up eating beef once a week could make a difference.

Shocking data and statistics that fuelled my idea for the ‘Carbon Canteen’ initiative

Although lunch period was a way for me to destress and relax at school, I found myself becoming increasingly weary of the lack of vegetarian options available at my school, the Independent Schools Foundation (ISF).

Only 3/60 meals offered were vegetarian

After finding a soft copy of the canteen menu from May this year, I discovered that out of the 60 meals my school offered in the span of a month, only 3 of them were vegetarian. This was shocking. Why hadn’t this been raised before? I couldn’t imagine the carbon emissions that were emitted solely from the menu of my school.

I estimated those 60 meals = 84,006gCO2e…

…I was itching to find out what the emissions were for meal options at other schools…

By trying to better imagine the carbon footprint of my school canteen, I calculated as best I could, the total approximate carbon emissions from key ingredients (eg. beef, rice, cabbage) that always appeared in each meal. After that, I estimated one serving size from 60 meals served in May 2022. It was: 84,006gCO2e. The results were staggering – it was equivalent to burning 154,583kg of coal at a power plant.

And because I knew our school’s meal service provider, Sodexo, catered for many schools in Hong Kong, if I was able to calculate the emissions from my school menu, I knew I would also be able to calculate the emissions of other Sodexo school menus. I was itching to find out the results. Was it Sodexo that was generally serving high carbon meals or was it our school’s choice?

…ICS had daily vegetarian options making their weekly emissions ~1/3 of ours

Turns out, Sodexo also catered to International Christian School (ICS) in Hong Kong. However, looking at their school menu from August 2022, I noticed that they had vegetarian meal options everyday (on occasion multiple). By using the same method to calculate my school canteen’s emissions, I was able to figure out their weekly carbon emissions were 8,738gCO2e. My school’s was 23,041gCO2e – more than double of theirs…

Surely, if Sodexo can provide climate friendly vegetarian meals for ICS HK, we could have that option too? From this realisation, I was driven to set up the Carbon Canteen initiative at my school.

Making Carbon Canteen possible

Carbon Canteen is an initiative that aims to increase the vegetarian meal options at my school from just 3 a month to at least one every day. Moreover, this initiative also aims to increase awareness and debunk misconceptions, such as “you must become a vegetarian or vegan in order to reduce your carbon footprint.”

After presenting the data, the School & Sodexo agreed to a 3 month trial of a daily vegetarian option…

…I will also be promoting the environ benefits on the school’s broadcast

After I established the Carbon Canteen, I organised a meeting with the head of food management at my school as well as the director of operations of Sodexo in Hong Kong. During the meeting, I presented the data I had collected and analysed as well as the proposed ideas I had. After countless meetings and advocating the need for change at my school, we were able to agree on completing a trial period of the proposed vegetarian meal options from December of 2022 to March of 2023.

The purpose of the trial was to figure out whether vegetarian meals would be popular amongst the students and if our school should implement this scheme permanently.

On top of the Carbon Canteen initiative, I also plan to promote the consumption of vegetarian meals as a means of reducing carbon emissions on my school’s secondary monthly broadcast “Good Morning ISF”.

Reducing food related emissions is easy – start small & build!

The road to a reduction in carbon emissions through diet changes in no way requires significant dietary restrictions. Simply, the next time you’re in line looking at meal choices, I suggest giving a vegetarian meal a go. With the options they have now, you won’t be disappointed – veggie pizza, tofu and vegetable curry, impossible burger etc.

Cutting emissions through food choices doesn’t mean becoming vegetarian overnight…

…we can make small changes like eating one less meat meal a week

To reduce harmful emissions, it begins with the choices we make as individuals and as consumers. Even though I’m 16, and am only one person, making this small change in my life has brought me joy in knowing that I am playing a role in decreasing my carbon footprint. With Christmas right around the corner, it is the perfect time to explore holiday themed vegetarian options such as brussel sprouts and omnipork as a substitute for brussel sprouts and bacon!

The most important message I would like to convey is that the easiest way we can reduce carbon emissions is from food consumption and that doesn’t mean we need to become vegetarian overnight. Instead we can make small changes over a long period of time like cutting one meat meal a week!

Wishing all of you a holly jolly Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Further Reading

More on latest 

  • An X-mas Feast in 2050 – It’s 2050 today & for CWR Sophie Lam’s Xmas dinner she’s buying lab-grown turkey from City Super & hydroponic sprouts. She takes a trip down memory lane to show us how HK got here…
  • Genius Greens Aeroponic Farms: The Future of Agriculture – In the midst of our current food conundrum we chat with King Lai, Founder of Genius Greens, set up an aeroponic farm in Hong Kong to reduce food miles & bolster local production
  • Food Footprint: Which Diet Creates The Least Amount Of Food Waste? – Green Queen’s Sally Ho tackles some of the complexities surrounding food & waste and examines which choices are really the most planet-friendly, it might not be the ones you think
  • Fashion Made it on Santa’s Naughty & Nice Lists This Year – Get on top of the fashion headlines making Santa’s Naughty and Nice lists this Christmas with CWR’s Dawn McGregor. Which is Zara on? How about Shein? And what about a new next gen fibre initiative?
  • Archireef: 3D-printed Clay Reef Tiles – Home to more hard coral species than the Caribbean, Hong Kong reefs need protecting. We sit down with CEO & Co-founder of Archireef, Vriko Yu, to hear how their 3D printed clay tiles save reefs with a 95% survivorship rate
Isabel Picazo
Author: Isabel Picazo
Isabel Picazo was born and raised in Hong Kong and attends ISF (Independent Schools Foundation), she is currently 16 and is in G11. Isabel is passionate, self-motivated and a team player with a keen interest in environmental impact and sustainability. She has experience in scientific research and reporting. Isabel completed a month-long internship with China Water Risk over the summer of 2022 and gained meaningful insight which inspired her to further her knowledge in carbon impact. She is currently completing the IB DP and looking to pursue a Bachelor's degree in environmental studies in the future.
Read more from Isabel Picazo →