Whirley_February 4 ways to drive buy

4 ways to drive buy-in for campus dining sustainability

College dining services find ways to encourage greener practices among students.

Sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!

Sustainability has evolved from elective to mandatory status at U.S. colleges and universities, and students are driving the shift. In Princeton Review’s most recent “hopes and worries” survey of nearly 10,000 college-bound teenagers, 61 percent weighed a school’s commitment to the environment in their decision whether to apply to or attend an institution.

Many campus dining sustainability efforts occur behind the scenes. A commitment to purchasing local food products, designing energy-efficient buildings, composting and other initiatives often happen without student involvement. But some strategies require behavioral changes. How can colleges encourage green practices among their student retail and dining customers?

  1. Recruit student ambassadors

Eco-Reps at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont,  conducted a weigh-in to demonstrate how much food waste dining hall users produced. The college’s Eco Reps — students who volunteer to model green habits, reach out and educate their peers — sorted and weighed discarded food during three weekday dinner periods in April 2016. They collected just over 200 pounds of waste, more than 90 percent of it edible — everything from pizza crusts to completely untouched meals.

The outreach efforts seem to be paying off. At a similar event in 2015,  waste amounted to 0.25 pounds per person per dinner; by 2016 that figure had been halved to 0.13 pounds.

  1. Stir up enthusiasm through social media

Ohio State University leveraged social media to spread the word about MYCup, a program designed to reduce use of disposable cups, lids and straws. Instagram users who watched, liked and reposted a MYCup video were entered into a drawing for a semester of free beverages.

The video supports OSU’s new program launched last fall in which 15,000 incoming first-year students and returning sophomores received Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) drink cups. The MYCups sport the red OSU logo, are personalized with each student’s first name and come preloaded with 10 free fills at a variety of Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers located across the Columbus campus. Beyond the 10 free drinks, refills run $1 each.

The cups, made by Whirley-DrinkWorks!, incorporate technology from Whirley subsidiary ValidFill that allows the cup owner to dispense beverages without having to stand in line to pay. A number of colleges, including the University of Georgia, State University of New York at New Paltz and the University of San Diego, have committed to similar programs with Whirley.

Zia Ahmed, senior director of OSU’s dining services, says well over 20,000 cups were diverted from local landfills during the first semester alone, and he sees upside potential.

  1. Make changes seamless

The University of Georgia previously had kept paper napkins next to the cutlery stations. But simply relocating dispensers to tables slashed napkin consumption by half. The university’s dining commons also use permanent dishes, glassware and flatware, which has contributed to the school’s goal of eliminating all non-compostable items from the dining halls.

OSU’s Ahmed says one key to popularizing a sustainability strategy is to offer choices so students don’t feel they are being forced to do something. When OSU removed trays from dining halls, for instance, the school still offered trays, but only on request. “Over time people stopped asking for them,” he says.

Offering something for free is another way to create a sense of choice.

The University of San Diego, located in drought-prone Southern California, distributed free Sustain-A-Bottles to meal plan subscribers during new student move-in weekend last August to encourage use of the  Whirley-DrinkWorks! RFID-equipped bottles at drink dispensers across campus. Staff set up a booth in a high-traffic area outside the main bookstore and distributed more than 500 bottles in two days. Other students, faculty and staff had the option of buying the bottle for $9.99. Semester plans cost $24.99, while 10 fills run $12.99.

The reusable bottles not only cut down on paper and plastic waste, they cut down on the water required to manufacture paper cups. The school is considering embedding them in all meal plans.

  1. Provide a clear incentive to adapt

In promoting reusables, SUNY New Paltz stresses two lures for students: value and convenience. The school sells Whirley-designed RFID drink cups for $8, which includes two fills, and students can then purchase a 10-fill card or an unlimited pass, which costs $31 per semester. Of the 2,800 students subscribing to the campus meal plan, about 1,000 have bought the cups, says foodservice general manager Ryan Goodwin. The fact that some of the Freestyle machines are accessible during off hours is considered a big plus.

Champlain College, which has been looking for ways to eliminate non-compostable paper from its dining operations, has seen a similar positive response to its introduction of reusable RFID cups. Dining services general manager Tom Oliver says the college’s dining advisory committee first informally polled about 50 students to help determine the cup and program design before rolling it out.

“To effect any real and lasting change you have to offer people a viable alternative to what they have,” Oliver says. In the case of the cups, value and convenience are two big incentives for students. The cold beverage program has been such a success, with nearly 900 cups sold in the last year and a half, that a similar plan will be implemented for coffee in the next semester, he adds. 

SUNY New Paltz also offers a reusable takeout container program: For $5 a semester, students can use the containers for to-go dining hall orders. When they return they simply trade that one in for a clean container.

Besides cutting down on trash, the sturdy containers also provide value. “It helps students who are on tighter budgets by not forcing them to buy food from the higher-priced retail outlets,” Goodwin says.

There are many ways to build enthusiasm for greener practices, but in the end any efforts are likely to pay off. “It’s a cultural change, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” OSU’s Ahmed says. “But I think in the next two or three years,we’ll see a major shift.”

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