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Guest Opinion: Designing A Circular Campus Food Service System

Guest Opinion: Designing A Circular Campus Food Service System

College campuses are leading the charge toward a more sustainable future, and their dining practices are a primary focus. Sustainability groups, including university-sponsored and student-led organizations, are partnering with campus dining services to implement programs that help rid the campus of wasteful and expensive single-use packaging. In the past few years, takeout dining has grown for residential dining halls and campus retail restaurants, creating a mountain of waste for campuses.

Change is afoot on campuses to help campuses work toward achieving their sustainability goals. Campuses are implementing and refining their reusable takeout programs. Making reusables free and using a system where students check out a container (like checking out a library book) and return it after use, are helping make these programs successful. This system reduces waste and encourages students to actively participate in sustainability programs actively, rewarding users for positive sustainability behaviors. In short, these programs are changing the paradigm of the takeout experience.

Eliminating plastics from waste streams is another significant goal of these systems. You can’t solve a plastic problem with more plastic, even if it is recyclable or reusable. Unfortunately, most plastics, even reusable plastic, end up in the trash. Worse yet, plastic cups and containers shed microplastics into the food or drink students are holding.

Preventing Endocrine Disruption

One study showed that polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) takeout containers shed microplastics into food. If students grab food to go once every other day, they could consume as many as 200 microplastics a week from those containers. Another study found that the effect of these particles in our diets can disrupt our hormones, growth, and development. College campuses are where students should grow, and our takeout containers should not disrupt their health.

Education and awareness campaigns are crucial for the success of these initiatives. Students must understand the importance of eliminating single-use plastics and how their actions contribute to broader sustainability goals. Campus dining services can play a vital role by providing information and incentives for students to choose reusable options.

Many student identification card providers, like Transact, CBORD, touchnet, and Atrium, are developing integrations with reusable checkout systems to create a seamless, straightforward way for students to access and track the containers. These apps can send reminders to return containers and provide information about the program’s environmental impact. Seeing the amount of waste removed from trash and the amount of water and emissions saved is a powerful motivator to adopt ongoing sustainability practices. The data also allows higher education teams to access information to track how well they meet their sustainability goals.

Shaping A Lifetime Of Good Habits

As colleges and universities expand these sustainable practices, they set a powerful example for other institutions and communities. The impact of removing single-use plastics on campus goes beyond immediate waste reduction. It fosters a culture of sustainability that students carry with them into their future careers and lives, amplifying the positive effects.

For example, Carleton College’s reusables loss rate dropped from almost 60% to less than 1% after implementing a tracking system, enabling the campus to participate in genuinely circular takeout. The data streams generated help in evaluating the impact of sustainability initiatives and have advanced zero-waste practices in Carleton’s broader community. Carleton’s model was shared as part of a City of Northfield, Riverbend Nature Park, and Carleton Sustainability Office Master Recycler and Composter program that supports individuals and organizations in finding, developing, and adopting other zero-waste practices.

Image courtesy of USEFULL.

Bringing reusable takeout to campuses involves taking deliberate steps, including:

Understand the need for reusables on campus

Getting specific about why plastic-free reusables would benefit a campus is essential. Questions to research include:

  • Is there an existing reusables program? What areas of improvement does the program need to prevent high loss rates or reduce plastic container usage, for example?
  • Are there campus-wide sustainability or zero-waste goals?
  • Are there dining-specific sustainability goals?
  • Is there student demand for a reusables program? Have students tried to advocate for one in the past?

Understand the status quo of dining on campus

Dining operations can vary by campus, and these differences can affect implementation. Here are questions to consider.

  • Are dining operations self-operated or contracted to a food service provider like Sodexo, Aramark, Compass Group, or others?
  • What dining models are currently offered on campus? Is food takeout available from the all-you-care-to-eat dining halls? Does the campus have retail restaurants? Is there order-ahead capability?

Identify staff stakeholders

Engaging with staff members is critical for introducing and implementing a reusables project.

  • Find sustainability advocates in the sustainability office, dining services, and auxiliary services department. Set up meetings with these advocates and ask them for recommendations for implementing sustainability programs.
  • Identify the decision-maker who will ultimately decide to sign a contract. Often, the decision-maker is in a role like Dining Director or Auxiliary Services Director.

Identify implementation routes

There are likely multiple groups that can advocate for a reusables program on campus. Often, these groups have opportunities for students to introduce and collaborate on sustainability-related projects. Find, connect with, or join these groups to learn more about these opportunities.

  • Student government, including the sustainability branch of the student government
  • Student interns within the Dining and Sustainability departments
  • Independent student groups, such as a Sustainability Club or Green Club

Find funding opportunities

Most campuses recognize the need for green initiatives and have funding mechanisms in place. Understanding reusable takeout programs can immediately result in cost savings.

  • How are sustainability initiatives funded on campus? Is there a green fund or grant? Are initiatives funded directly by dining services?
  • What is the funding process? Identify any application deadlines which may occur at the beginning of the semester, biweekly, or on a rolling basis.

Bottom Line: Taking The First Steps

Advocating for a reuse program on campus can be challenging. It requires learning about the need for reuse, understanding the current dining landscape, identifying the stakeholders, and reviewing funding pathways for the reuse program. To sum up the action steps:

  • Understand the need for a reusables program on campus.
  • Set up a meeting with advocates within the Sustainability Office and Dining Services.
  • Find funding opportunities for the reusables program.
  • Identify and set up a meeting with decision-makers.

Eliminating plastics from college dining is a critical step in addressing the broader issue of plastic pollution. By adopting reusable containers, enhancing infrastructure, and promoting education, campuses can significantly reduce their environmental footprint. These efforts help the environment and prepare students to be conscientious and responsible sustainability practitioners. As more institutions embrace these practices, the collective impact can drive considerable progress toward a more sustainable future.

About the Author

Alison Cover is the founder and CEO of USEFULL, a developer of easy-to-use, technology-enabled reusable food service containers that have achieved 99% return rates in early deployment.

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