Opinion

Living Lab Series: Ben Pinney on Championing Sustainability in the USU

For the next instalment of the Living Lab series, SEI editor Liberty Lawson sits down with operations manager Ben Pinney to talk about the evolution of sustainability within the University’s outlets, from reusable mugs to food rescue schemes.

Image supplied by University of Sydney

Liberty: Could you tell us about your background and your role at the University? I know you have long been a champion of sustainability… what originally inspired you?

Ben: I have worked in the hospitality industry for close to 20 years and have always worked in and around cafés, restaurants and bars. During this time I have seen the impact poor industry practice and consumer behaviour has had on the environment. Having grown up and worked in the age of convenience, I am passionate about ensuring this behaviour doesn’t continue to have such a negative effect on the campus environment.

I am particularly driven by exploring different ideas and technology to address the growing issue of food insecurity and waste in society in general, but particularly for young adults aged between 18-25. The need for climate action is more critical than ever, and we as individuals have a responsibility to change behaviour and do things differently. I take great pride in leading an organisation that influences a campus community to enact change and ultimately improve our impact on the environment.

What are some of the changes currently being made within the USU?

Currently the USU is working on a number of initiatives and projects across multiple departments. We are ensuring that sustainability is at the core of everything we do – from our events and cafés to our student programs. We want to ensure that new and existing students realise the importance of sustainability. Some the ways we will ensure this happens will be:

  • Industry first packaging solutions that are much more sustainable
  • Swap and go coffee cup scheme
  • Partnerships internally and within industry or government to reduce food waste and address the issue of food insecurity within 18-25 year olds
  • Commercial partnerships and agreements with businesses whom are focused on sustainability
  • Incentives and discounts to encourages students to consider environment and health first

Earlier in the year, you helped coordinate a really amazing three-day sustainability festival at the university. Did that serve as a good opportunity to test the feasibility of some potential new ideas?

What started as a single day idea to drive awareness around sustainability turned into one of the most successful festivals we ran all year. It was an incredible platform for engagement and awareness to not only our student community but external partners. We provided an opportunity to showcase partners we value working with, businesses like The Bread and Butter Project, Farmwall and Oz Harvest. We introduced new initiatives to campus that have had an incredibly positive effect on our daily operations and green impact – most of which are still in use across our outlets, like the mug wall, coffee cup recycling, coffee ground re-use, discounts for BYO bowl and an extensive Food Rescue program

What are the biggest challenges you have had to face in the transitions so far?

Undoubtedly the biggest challenge to any business is the impact on the commercial profitability of the business. Thankfully the USU board recognises our commitment to all our stakeholders as a ‘profit for purpose’ business. Businesses like ours are creating engagement and a competitive advantage through social good – whilst recognising our role to create better global citizens. 

At the Courtyard café you can borrow reusable mugs for take away coffees now, which is so great!! What has the response been like to the other changes you’ve started making?

The response has been incredibly positive and has opened a number of doors and opportunities for myself and the USU. We have increased reusable cup use across our outlets by over 20% and seen significant reduction in waste to landfill through our coffee ground reuse and recycling schemes.

Students are really engaged in sustainability and I really enjoy being contacted by people all across campus about a new idea or project that they are working on. They appreciate the work the USU is doing and that they are part of the sustainability movement we creating and hope to build on into 2020!

In an ideal world, what large-scale changes would you like to see for the University’s food outlets, a decade from now?

Over the last few years I’ve seen some enormous changes happen on campus and our outlets. I’d like to see all outlets, not just USU, working in the same direction and displaying a the same commitment we have to more sustainable practice. We have the potential to operate our food systems in a much more closed loop environment, free of any waste, using 100% renewable energy and offering a variety and quality of food not seen in any University in Australia. If we work together on intiatives like swap and go coffee, organics waste and education around sustainability we can implement significant changes for future students to enjoy.


Ben Pinney is the USU Food and Beverage Operations Manager at the University of Sydney. He has worked in the hospitality industry for over two decades and is passionate about brining sustainable practices to the staff, students and operations of the University of Sydney, and beyond.

The Living Lab Series aims to highlight sustainability here at the University of Sydney. From native gardens and recycled asphalt to the new Sustainability Strategy and beyond, this series aims to highlight the range of projects championing sustainability on campus, and to celebrate everyone that has been working behind-the-scenes in this space for years. Each month we will sit down with researchers, teachers, students and campus staff to celebrate these incredible achievements and learn how we can continue to do more.