Two University of Glasgow students who worked in catering at COP26 share worrying tales from behind the scenes.
What an incredible opportunity for Glasgow and Scotland that COP represented. People travelled from across the planet to attend a globally significant conference in Scotland’s brightest, most hopeful city. Once the heart of the world’s shipbuilding industry, a petri-dish for intellectual debate and economic advancement and now a glorious University city known for its rich, vibrant culture, eclectic cuisine, heady nightlife, Tennant’s beer, and deep-fried Mars bars.
As a UofG student, I was bursting with pride that Glasgow was holding COP26 and I was immediately determined to find a role, however small, so that I could claim to have been part of an event so full of potential to change the course of the climate crisis. The opportunity to plant seeds of hope into the minds of so many, across every far-flung corner of the world. Wow: the sense of anticipation was incredible. Ok, I was only a lowly shift-worker grinding away serving coffees and bacon rolls, but it was good enough to say “I’m working at COP26”. I was still going to be there.
But, like too much in life, the euphoric sense of anticipation didn’t last long.
As you might imagine, catering for COP26 was no different to any other monstrously large event; it all begins with dump-truck-size drop-offs of stuff in a single delivery location. Heavily packaged food, drink and other related paraphernalia landed, as if from outer space, in a massive landfill size pile.
I was slack-jawed at the volume of goods and my wistful, naive hopes for a cleaner future were almost immediately dashed as I watched-on, helpless at chaos, during my first shift at the Grab&Go counter. Every coffee in a paper cup, every spoon disposable, every counter over-catered, everything turned out on an industrial scale in some far-away warehouse cave.
That COP26, with the sole purpose of a better planet for all, born from the UN’s sustainability goals, bragging on their website about uber-objectives including the “avoidance of waste to landfill” would not go the extra mile to avoid this is ludicrous. Would it cost more to fix this in a clever way using local talent? Financially, almost certainly. But in terms of image, wow, what a statement. Oh Lordy, the irony of it all.
And that’s not all. The discipline instilled in every family home across Europe - and beyond - to separate waste into its various types was cast to the four winds. I was instructed to put every single item into the same waste bin - milk cartons, blue paper roll, coffee cups, plastics, packaging, tea bags, slops and any other detritus that was left lying about. You name it, it all went the same way.
"The discipline instilled in every family home across Europe - and beyond - to separate waste into its various types was cast to the four winds."
And, heaven forbid, there was a visitor who didn’t fancy cow’s milk with their hot drink. In a planned effort to combat the frenetic peaks of demand expected during breaks, the coffee machines were only programmed to deliver full fat cows’ milk. No chance of a skinny latte then, let alone an oat milk flat white.
In a weird quirk of failed market analysis, all the meat products flew off the shelves in double quick time leaving a pile of vegetarian and vegan food options. I found myself offering a customer who asked for a sausage roll, a “vegan sausage” alternative. His stony look of surprise made me feel about two-inches tall. “Yes, I know it isn’t sausage, but…” I spluttered as he walked off shaking his head.
“If we don’t change our eating habits, we’re all doomed. Don’t you see that?” (I didn’t say that last bit. Unfortunately.)
As I began the big clear-up at the end of day one, I asked if there was a reusable cloth rather than the ubiquitous blue roll. The response was to ask if I study “something to do with the environment I suppose as you seem so worried about it all.” My eyes almost fell out of my head: did I just hear that correctly?
I left at the end of day one exhausted and depressed. What hope do any of us have if the minds of the people who have the power to change and, more importantly, to set examples, do not want - nor appear to care - for the small stuff. While China and India may be reluctant to phase-out coal powered stations, I cannot see why we can’t all begin by making pledges to do better where we can and in areas we can control. Small steps and all that …
"What hope do any of us have if the minds of the people who have the power to change and, more importantly, to set examples, do not want - nor appear to care - for the small stuff. "
My take-away from my time behind the scenes at COP26 is that the time has come to restrict choice. Instead of continuing to wallow in the customer-always-comes-first mantra of the modern-age, we need to start making decisions for the general public. This shouldn’t mean wholesale destruction, but it should mean a limitation on choice. In the same way cigarettes have been taxed almost to oblivion, foods that are harmful to the planet need to be priced to the point of diminished demand. As a language student rather than an economist, I neither know nor understand the theory behind this, but there will be one.
COP26 was an opportunity to break bad habits and levels of expectation. Let’s think of a space with only vegan or vegetarian options, where coffee machines only deliver milk alternatives, where there is no grab and go option that requires paper or plastic cups. This may be harsh, but it works; think about smoking in pubs and public spaces or seatbelts or drink drive laws. Don’t give people the choice.
Some may argue that this is too much in the UK’s liberal society, but hell, who cares? On the basis that something MUST BE DONE there is really no choice.
"Perhaps my disgust and disbelief at seeing the behind-the-scenes realities for a week or so at COP26 is exactly what I needed to realise that hard, direct action is needed."
Should we continue down this path I am not interested. It is painful to watch people who don’t appear to think or care to ruin the future of the planet. They may not care about the polar bears or low-lying pacific islands, but what about their own flesh and blood? And if they don’t think and care about them, I rest my case in terms of the forced choices I outline above.
Perhaps my disgust and disbelief at seeing the behind-the-scenes realities for a week or so at COP26 is exactly what I needed to realise that hard, direct action is needed. Left to the people, we’ll fail. I was excited and proud to be a part of something big and am glad I have a small story to tell. And tell it I will. The message of the conference, based on a global coming together of Nations and a unified recognition of a need for urgent action, is not lost on me. But we need to take care that the focus on big moves, important as they are, do not obscure the mass impact of more modest, baby steps.
On 27 October 2021 I worked at COP26: at the SEC to be precise. I arrived and it was chaotic. It was clear there had been little preparation that led to the rubbish excuse for a conference.It was all totally for show. A joke.
I will start with my training which I did a few weeks prior to my first shift, I felt uncomfortable with how little was being done to promote positive individual change and systemic movements going forward. We were offered fizzy drinks and crisps while we were told how we were supposed to give a good impression to the delegates. During this time, there was no recycling for our used cans and plastic bottles, which all felt a little ironic. Yet we were told that the produce was 85% from Scotland to reduce the carbon footprint. This I also found a bit ironic, because considering beef production alone contributes to 14.5% of global emissions, there was still a full meaty menu for everyone. Not only this but I also read in the same article that eating local made miniscule difference, it was eating meat and dairy that had the serious impact. So, I left feeling amused but not shocked. I thought maybe when the climate conference arrived we would ramp up the bins and reflect the impression we were being brainwashed to present.
I was wrong. On my first shift, I got through the gates, got my fancy plastic badge with my face on it. I felt important. I was then told my material mask was too loud and given a disposable one (the same ones that you see clogging up the sea). I saw others with material fancy COP ones but could not find one (I mainly worked in the kitchen), so I wore the mask I was given. I went to my station, where my manager was throwing away (possibly 200) sandwiches that had been ordered the day before and were now out of date (by a day). I helped wheel them off to general waste. I asked immediately if they give to the homeless (what I was told) or to food waste because I worked in a surplus food kitchen where we use food that is slightly out of date. They said they used to give it to schools but now because of Covid-19 if it was out of date it went in the bin. I asked if I could take them home with me and I could give them to anyone who wanted them. They said no and if I was hungry, I should “wait until lunch.”
I then put out the fresh, new sandwiches. We were feeding staff and all those setting up the conference. We went to get sandwiches; making sure there was an assortment. Oh, there was! Of all kinds of meat, the packaging is plastic film and cardboard, partly recyclable, but not fully biodegradable. We had tuna in masses, ham, seared ham, ham and cheese, cheese, egg mayo, pesto and veg, and a tiny amount of falafel sandwiches. So much meat to choose from. I was told to put veggie stuff at the back because no one wanted it. I went with my instincts and put them at the front instead, thinking about my studies of the psychology of climate change, and how nudging (putting veg/vegan options out as the salient options) can cause sales to increase from 25-50%.
Then I was onto serving, for main it was Shepherd's pie with beef, with the veggie option being pasta and tomato sauce (containing no protein which was complained about). Everyone wanted the pie which was finished fast; I mean I probably would have gone for it if I was given the pasta choice. It was there, it was easy, it was lazy, the obvious option. 14.5% of global emissions later!
As I removed the mass of cling film from the pasta, I asked where I should put it? Covered in pasta sauce I was told to put it in the plastic bin (you can’t recycle cling film, or dirty plastic!). So, I asked where the general waste is and was told every bin is just the same back here. Looking over the counter to the outside showy conference world there are bins separated for each bit of waste, but behind the scenes, we have a “fuck it” attitude. A member of staff said to me: “we are not on show it's only out there that we need to look good.” Great example, we are behind the scenes, and we don’t care. So, all the plastic, rubbish, food goes into the same clear bag which all gets tipped in general waste. If you go to general waste, it’s piled with recycling and food and everything in between, because it is only the staff who will see that.
"A member of staff said to me: “we are not on show it's only out there that we need to look good.”
Let’s get onto food waste then, which I touched on. We were told that we are limiting food waste to a minimum. We were lied to: “all the left-over food will go to the homeless.” Of course that’s not true, “but make sure you say it to the delegates!” At the end of lunch, I was told by my manager to throw all the leftovers in general waste. I asked if we could put aside for the staff? She said no, our plastic covered sandwiches were elsewhere, and I should throw it away. I ignored, put to the side to be thrown away by someone else.
The food waste in the kitchen was more extreme than I had seen before. I have worked at football matches in Scotland that separate the food. Here it is all chucked away mixed and general bin! WHO CARES!
At the end of the day (after dinner), all the untouched food, cakes, sandwiches etc. were thrown into general waste (all in date). A girl I spoke to said she was so distressed about the amount of food she had thrown in the bin the night before she had thought about not coming back. But like us all, she needed the cash.
"COP26 was lazy and disorganised, and no one cared."
Honestly, COP26 was lazy and disorganised, and no one cared. It is not the workers fault; it’s the organisers, the money makers. They did not put the facilities in place for the people at the “bottom” to do a good job. They did not signpost where to put the rubbish behind the scenes, because no one sees us. And if people don’t see what you are doing, do you even matter?
I left my shift because I do not want to be part of it.
*Names changed for anonymity.
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