Food to go, containers to come back

Reusable carryout containers boost sustainability at college, let students eat meals at all hours.

Sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!

At The College of Wooster, getting a to-go meal is not only convenient but it also helps the environment. The college, which is located in Wooster, Ohio, offers free reusable meal containers that students can fill at the main dining hall and take back to their dorms or wherever they want to eat. When they return the container to the cashier at the dining hall, it is set aside for washing, and the student can get either a clean container to fill or a carabiner they can exchange for a container the next time they need a grab-and-go meal.

The Reusable To Go program, which the 2,000-student college launched about four years ago, has been a success, says Marjorie A. Shamp, director of campus dining and conference services. “We initially were asked to provide a to-go program from our all-you-care-to-eat dining hall,” she says. “Students were involved in activities that went into the evening and they would miss dinner.” In addition, students who knew they would miss breakfast wanted to be able to take fruit, yogurt and other items for the next morning.

The program also needed to be environmentally friendly, as students are very interested in sustainability. In 2008, the president, faculty and students endorsed a "Commitment to Environmental Stewardship," and the college established a Committee for a Sustainable Campus that raises awareness about sustainability, works to increase recycling campus-wide and seeks to make campus operations environmentally sustainable.

Dining services first tried compostable meal containers, but soon found a flaw. Not only did food soak through the material, but the containers also were not being collected properly for composting. The College of Wooster is a small school with a small dining services staff, and there were not enough workers or student volunteers to sort the containers and ensure they went to a compost facility.

“They would go into the landfill,” Shamp says. “And these were not cheap. That’s when we started looking at reusable.”

The reusable containers, which are manufactured by Whirley-DrinkWorks! from BPA-free polypropylene, are less expensive than the compostable boxes. The College faced another challenge, though. The Ohio Department of Health did not allow reuse of returned take-out containers. The concern, Shamp explains, is that if a person returns a box that has not been sanitized and they touch the serving spoon to the presumably bacteria-laden container and then return the spoon to the communal tray of food, it can cause cross contamination. That is generally why people are not allowed to bring their own resealable containers to all-you-care-to-eat dining facilities.

The College of Wooster, however, requested and received a variance from the state, with the stipulation that Dining Services had to take control of the boxes for purposes of washing, sanitizing and storage. When the student returns the container Dining Services washes, air dries and sanitizes the box. The student gets a new container. If a student loses or damages the box they pay $5 to receive a new one. “That’s if the student fesses up,” Shamp says. “Sometimes they slide [the damaged box] into the stack and we don’t notice. 

To bring attention to the program Dining Services launched a multi-pronged educational effort that included sending emails to students, posting signs around the dining hall and setting up a table at new student orientation. It helped that the college supplied the boxes, which are recyclable, at no charge to students.

The “Hooked on sustainability” program with the redemption carabiner caught Whirley-DrinkWorks! attention.  They thought this was such a good idea, they decided to provide carabiners for all of their reusable Meal Container customers. “We realized the students only have to clip their carabiner on to their backpacks to reclaim a clean box the next time they want to dine out.”  Says University Channel Manager, Liz Deambrosio.  

The boxes, and takeout, are very popular on the campus, Shamp says. On an average day 3,400 students go through the main dining hall at Lowry Center between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., and about 300 use to-go boxes. The school goes through about 3,500 boxes a year. Some students rinse out the boxes when they bring them back, others don’t. Some just leave the boxes behind when they depart campus for the summer, although some students take the boxes home with them. Shamp says parents love the boxes and use them to take their own lunches to work. Then, the student gets a new box at the start of the school year. 

The containers also have a side benefit. “Showing the students that we care about the environment and we are doing all we can to help them achieve goals in sustainability has been a positive thing,” Shamp says.

Other colleges in Ohio are implementing similar programs. “It’s what the students are asking for,” she says. “At first it’s kind of daunting to take on the washing and restocking, but it’s so popular and so requested.”

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