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Sustainability in the Studierendenwerk - A Balancing Act between Conflicting Goals

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The daily business of the Studierendenwerk in figures

Meals on an average Tuesday in 2019 in the university canteen in Building X: 5,000

Of which vegetarian or vegan:
over 50%

Fair trade coffee sold in Building X, the West End, and the standing cafeteria: 8 tons/year

BAföG applications processed: 10,000/year

Students in the dormitories in Bielefeld: 2,400

Children in the daycare centers of the Studierendenwerk: 161

Interview with Dr. Jens Schröder (Managing Director, Studierendenwerk Bielefeld) and Jaqueline Bettels (Communications Office, Studierendenwerk Bielefeld)

Status September 2022

Over 41,000 students across its entire area of responsibility and total assets of just under 85 million euros: With its 400 employees, Studierendenwerk Bielefeld works not only for Bielefeld University, but also for Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences, OWL University of Applied Sciences and Detmold University of Music. As an institution under public law, the Studierendenwerk operates university canteens as well as cafeterias, dormitories and daycare centers and is subject to the Studierendenwerksgesetz NRW (North Rhine-Westphalia Student Services Act) as well as its own bylaws.


The term sustainability is used so often that it sometimes turns into an elastic term. What is Studierendenwerk Bielefeld's understanding of sustainability?

Of course, we are familiar with most definitions of sustainability and its three dimensions. But for practical purposes at the Studierendenwerk, I would formulate the guideline more succinctly: As much ecology as is economically viable. We operate in accordance with commercial law, prepare annual financial statements and, if possible, aim to generate a surplus, especially in order to renovate, refurbish or, if necessary, build new halls of residence. And second, of course, we are committed to our charter mission of providing students with affordable dining and housing. Put simply, anything that fits within this framework can be realized in terms of ecologically oriented measures. Even if it often does not pay off in pennies and nickels. For many measures, we have to decide to what extent we are willing to accept losses from them. One example is the roofs for bicycle racks at the dormitories. They require capital expenditure and initially bring little financial benefit. But in our opinion, they are needed as accepted and convenient parking facilities with a view to the traffic turnaround. Another current news example is photovoltaic systems. We have a PV installation calculated for every construction or renovation measure, but currently have payback periods of 15 - 20 years. The probability is quite high that the system will have to be replaced before then. However, we are now preparing a corresponding investment for some houses, as we consider it to be ecologically sensible and the financial risk seems acceptable to us.

The topic has been on the agenda for an astonishingly long time. The first milestone was probably the introduction of organic coffee from fair trade in around 2000. Six years later, we decided to build all new buildings to a better energy standard than the applicable Energy Saving Ordinance (EnEV) and, in the case of renovation measures, to achieve at least the applicable EnEV. In the case of the new building at Wertherstrasse 160 -162, for example, we are at "Effizienzhaus 55". Some student unions are now even going for the passive house standard, but this can also cause problems if there is not enough ventilation. Since the houses are extremely well insulated, good ventilation is essential, otherwise mold can quickly form. Ventilation systems are very expensive to install and operate and can become bacteria havens if not properly maintained. Our approach of exceeding the standard, but not pushing it to the limit, has worked well for us so far.

We are looking at the whole spectrum of our activities, but the main focus probably lies on catering, building operations and construction. One major measure is the current construction of the new dormitory on Wertherstraߟe, to our knowledge the first student dormitory in NRW to be built largely from wood, a renewable resource. Incidentally, the 18 stately trees that previously stood on the site were replanted by excavator to the exterior of another dormitory.

Another big step is that since 2020, we have been purchasing our own electricity entirely from renewable sources.

But it's often the small measures that matter: Many people remember, for example, that until a year ago there were two display cases in university canteen X in which the respective dishes of the day were displayed. They were usually replaced after an hour and a half. Assuming that ten meals were presented there per day, that adds up to around 2,500 meals per year on 250 meal days that no longer end up in the trash. We are currently working on the idea of presenting the menus with photos as an alternative.

And a milestone that tends to be overlooked: With small locations of our dining halls and cafeterias, there is always the question of how much is cooked on site and how much is transported there. We have made the fundamental decision that we cook as much as possible on site. Because of our quality standards, on-site cooking is fresher and we can better respond to varying demand. We cook 99% of the food in the morning for the day. If a dish runs low, we make up for it. Since we try not to over shop, it can happen that not everything is available at 1:30pm. So there are almost no leftovers of prepared food. We sometimes get requests from initiatives to save food, but this is hardly relevant for us. Leftover food that remains on the plates goes to a regional biogas plant of a farmer in Bielefeld-Senne.

In the course of the ECOPROFIT project, we converted the starch supplements, such as noodles or rice, to organic. However, since these also come into contact with non-organic products, we are then no longer allowed to label them as "organic...". Here, we are currently considering ways to still draw attention to this. Our milk is also organic.

Here, too, we have conflicts of interest, especially when organic products are significantly more expensive to buy than conventional products. Especially with fresh products such as fruit and vegetables, stable deliverability is also important, since we are a community catering company that cooks according to a menu and cannot easily deviate from it. We have a huge hygiene management system and numerous reporting requirements, such as for allergens, soon also calorific values and, in perspective, the CO2 footprint of our dishes. All of this requires fixed planning.

We like to take the opportunity here to point out that in Bielefeld already about 80% of our food is vegetarian or vegan, like the vast majority of side dishes, the large salad buffet, the stews, of course the vegetarian menu of the day and more and more often the offer at the action counter. We are aware that the indication effect comes quite strongly from what is on the menu. We will certainly increase the proportion of vegetarian and vegan menus in the menu over the next few years. And while we're on the subject of the next few years: Given the current wave of prices on the purchasing side, it will probably be inevitable to have to raise prices. The discussion will be coming up in our committees in the next few months. If necessary, this may also be accompanied by a shift in supply from meat-based to meat-free.

The reusable system introduced a year ago with an external supplier has unfortunately not proved successful. Among other things, it has turned out to be a problem that it is not actually permitted to cut with a knife in the menu trays, but this is not practical. As a result, more and more tiny cuts are made in the menu tray over time. When these are rinsed hot for hygienic reasons, they break much faster than announced by the manufacturer. We want to stay with reusable, but in the form of a self-brought container or presumably starting in the fall, a new container that can be purchased cheaply from us; however, without a deposit option - i.e. rinsed by the guests themselves.

Overall, we have a priority sequence in three steps: First priority is on-site consumption, which we strongly encourage because the lights are on here anyway and there are regular plates and cutlery. The second priority is to bring your own containers. And if that doesn't work either, you have to pay for disposable containers. However, this last option is to be phased out gradually.

A community dining facility is not quickly adaptable. The university canteen in Building X is designed for up to four menu lines. We are often asked to expand the variety of the menu even further, but that would already be technically very very complex.

Cooking also requires an enormous amount of energy, and here we already have the next conflict of objectives: How much energy do we use? We offer hot meals at many locations on the Campus Bielefeld and, given the current difficult energy conditions, we have to ask ourselves how much we can and want to cook, where and on which days. In community catering, however, even rapid capacity reductions are particularly costly, both in terms of production technology and in terms of merchandise management, staff planning or the wishes of the guests.

Cooking is the first major energy consumer, the second is dishwashing. That's why we're considering whether one of the two dishwashing systems in university canteen X can be left off on less busy days like Friday. Because once the dishwashing system is switched on, 1,000 liters of water are heated directly. We can't turn it down to 500 liters just because half as much needs to be flushed. In short, the technical framework conditions often make it very difficult to make changes to offers or processes.

When it comes to purchasing goods, we also have a difficult environment for sustainability at the moment. We used to get fixed delivery prices for one year and fixed commitments for delivery times. During the Corona period, prices were already being reset every two months. And since the Ukraine war, we sometimes only get daily prices and there are significant supply bottlenecks. As a result, we have more than 100% of purchasing transactions at 60% of sales compared to before Corona. The result is smaller batches and more delivery routes. But at the moment, we immediately grab scarce products such as cooking oil if we can buy 50 liters at all, for example.

ECOPROFIT is primarily an environmental management system. Above all, it has led us to systematically collect data and determine key figures, for example on water, on energy or also on the gasoline consumption of our relatively small fleet of cars and delivery trucks. Incidentally, we already had our dormitories in the ECOPROFIT process in 2009, and now in 2020 the university canteen X and the Studierendenwerk administration building.

However, we have also reached limits in some environmentally relevant categories. For example, we have found that in our company waste is a category that is difficult to measure, both in the dormitories and in the university canteens. In the food service area, for example, the production and food waste contains a relatively large amount of water. Weighing the waste hardly provides relevant figures or time series.

Like any management system, ECOPROFIT follows the cycle planning-measuring-assessing-taking action. Unfortunately, the Corona pandemic has slowed us down in our planning, measuring and evaluating. When you suddenly have only 0 - 60% of the normal turnover for weeks at a time and a lot of improvisation has to be done in the company, this makes an orderly management cycle difficult. Also, the exchange with other participating companies, which is always particularly valuable in the ECOPROFIT project, has unfortunately not taken place as usual.

Directly: Saving energy. Not only in the energy-intensive catering businesses, but also in the dormitories, for example. The German Studentenwerk [Association for Student Affairs], the umbrella organization of the student unions, has now rolled out an energy-saving campaign for dormitories in the fall, and we are part of it. We are also considering lowering the nighttime temperature, which will be decided in the next few weeks.

Another plan for the next few months is the renovation of the well-known dormitory at the corner of Universitätsstraße and Voltmannstraߟe, probably to the KfW/BEG 85 standard. And the construction of additional roofs for bicycles is also still on the list at some of the dormitories.

In the food service area, we want to try to collect an ecological footprint for the dishes. The idea is to determine the associated amount of CO2 for each dish and integrate it into the menu on a daily basis, both on the Internet and on the screens. In this way, guests can make a conscious decision for or against a dish.

We take on as much as we think we can handle. However, Corona and the economic crises are sucking up a lot of energy and capacity from our employees right now. That's why we have to put some ideas on the back burner, or some things - such as the ECOPROFIT management cycle - simply run more smoothly. In general, we are pleased when the students and employees support the measures - and also take on some of the responsibility themselves. This plays a particularly important role in the dormitories in terms of energy consumption. Here, everyone can contribute to more climate protection.

From time to time, we would like to see a little more practical support from the student residents. One example: At the request of students, for example, we have made large organic waste garbage cans available at some residence halls. Although we have hung information posters right next to the garbage cans, the waste is not separated properly, is subsequently not taken away by Umweltbetrieb and the caretakers have to re-sort the garbage cans.

And of course one always wishes for support from politics. The new government of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia has set itself the goal of making the state administration, including the universities - and I would generously include the Studierendenwerk in this - climate-neutral by 2035. We are very open to this. In addition, next year there will probably be an obligation for sustainability reporting in the annual financial statements. We assume that this will also affect us student unions.

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