Waste reduction is one of the major goals of the sustainability movement, and one that has had a growing influence on onsite dining programs, particularly in the college/university segment. A prime target of this movement: the mountains of disposable takeout containers and beverage bottles generated by the typical campus that ultimately make their way to landfills.
One way to combat this plague of waste has been with biodegradable disposables. But that requires a composting program and waste separation. Plus, biodegradable disposables are considerably more expensive than their plastic, paper and Styrofoam cousins.
However, some schools are now taking looking at an alternative approach: reusable takeout containers that take the whole notion of “disposable” out of the discussion.
One of the most recent is Iowa State University, where the dining department gave away 5,000 reusable water bottles that students can refill for free at one of the residence hall dining outlet water stations. The bottles also entitle users to a 35-cent discount on any beverage in the retail outlets, says ISU Dining Director Nancy Levandowski.
“We looked at 20 different designs before choosing this one,” Levandowski says. “It has things students told us they wanted, like a wide mouth so you can fill it with ice, and a strap so you can hook it on a backpack.”
ISU also has a reusable takeout container that sells for $6. Students are given 10 minutes in a dining hall to fill it, then take the food away. Soiled containers can be exchanged for clean ones at the dining halls, but students are responsible for washing them if they use them at retail outlets.
Reusable containers have been around for a couple years at some campuses. One of the first to was Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, which rolled out the EcoClamshell, made from a durable, dishwasher-safe plastic material, in 2008.
EcoClamshells are rented for a one-time $5 fee (charged to the meal plan account), and are good for the rest of the student's time at Eckerd. Whenever a student wants to take food out of the dining hall, she checks out an EcoClamshell, then returns it at her next visit, when the used one is run through the dishwasher while she gets a clean one.
If she fails to return it (the containers are checked in and out), she has to pay $5 for another one or forego takeout (there are no disposable alternatives).
Of the school's 1,800 enrollment, about 1,200 have chosen to participate in the EcoClamshell program, says Catering Manager Kathy Mills.
Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, MN, also debuted its GustieWare initiative in 2008.
Unlike Eckerd, Gustavus gives away the containers, trusting students to return them. Of course, not all of them do, admits Dining Director Steve Kjellgren, but enough do that the program has been continued.
“In the first year, 5,000 disappeared, but we still remained cost-neutral because it offset all the disposables we didn't have to buy,” Kjellgren says. “In the second year, we did 25 percent better and had a net gain.”
Gustavus serves about 5,500 meals a day in its MarketPlace, with roughly 25% of them in the form of take out.
For a “Day in the Life” of the GustieWare reusable takeout container used at Gustavus Adolphus College, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQp-TscYWJw .