Boston College Dining Services will introduce its new reusable to-go container program at Stuart Dining Hall this fall. The move is part of a series of steps aimed at ramping up sustainability efforts on campus. The program aims to offer an environmentally friendly alternative to the paper containers currently available while also cutting back on lost cutlery and china.
According to Julianne Stelmaszyk, manager of regional and sustainable food systems for BC Dining, around 60 percent of food purchased in dining halls is taken to-go, largely because china is not available everywhere on campus. During the last academic year, the student body consumed about 3.5 million plastic utensils, 700,000 straws, and 360,000 coffee cups.
Plates and metal silverware, although more environmentally friendly, have also caused headaches for BC Dining. Each year, dining services must replace the thousands of sets of china and cutlery that go missing. In the fall of 2016, The Heights reported that Corcoran Commons alone was missing over 2,000 plates. EcoPledge, a student group on campus, has even hosted plate recollection drives in order to combat the problem.
“It’s both people throwing it away because it’s more convenient and people taking it for their dorms,” said Anne Marie Green, MCAS ’20, who has been working with BC Dining as a sustainability intern since early 2018. “It doesn’t seem like it’s a big issue when you just take one set of silverware and one plate, but it adds up.”
BC Dining was worried the to-go containers would be stolen as well, so Green spoke to other universities to see how they approached the issue. In 2014, Virginia Tech purchased several Ozzi machines: vending machine-sized boxes that accept used containers and spit out a token. Students and staff then exchange the token for a clean, reusable container when they next purchase their food. Each machine costs $13,999 and requires around $100 of maintenance per year, as well as separate purchases of Ozzi-compatible containers, which each cost $4.60.
“We’re definitely not using them,” Green said. “They’re too expensive and don’t really work, so Virginia Tech bagged them recently. … But we do need a way to track these boxes so that if a student steals a box or doesn’t return it, then they’re charged on their student account for the price of the box.”
Green’s concerns echo those of other universities that tested the Ozzi program. In a 2014 article by The Marquette Wire, students found that the limited number of machines made using the reusable containers highly inconvenient, and many students simply tried to use the containers repeatedly rather than go to the Ozzi machines.
BC Dining instead opted for a more low-tech solution, essentially creating a manual version of the token system.
“There are a bunch of other universities that use this system—University of Vermont is a good example—because it doesn’t require much electronic transaction and is easier to operate,” Green said.
“Freshmen, law students, or faculty eating in Stuart Dining Hall can buy into the program at a price of $8.00. In the first two weeks, if they buy into the program at one of our Green2Go (G2G) tables, they will get two tokens. Then, students can go through the food service line and request their food in a G2G box. They bring their food in the container up to any register, and in exchange for the container, they give the cashier a token.”
When they’re done with their meal, participants will return their box to the center register in Stuart in exchange for another token, which will be carabiners. Students and faculty can enter back into the cycle for another $8.00 in the case of a lost container or token.
[Note: Click on the pictures for a more detailed look at the containers and carabiners.]
“There definitely needs to be a huge educational push, and that’s part of the reason why we’re doing it at an all-freshman dining hall,” Green said. “Because they’re new to college, we can just say, ‘This is our system, this is how it works, please take advantage of it.’”
The G2G program is just the latest in a series of steps by BC Dining toward becoming a more environmentally friendly organization. It already donates or composts all food waste produced at dining halls and utilizes the LeanPath system, which watches dining hall waste and determines which meals are being over-served. According to BC Dining’s page on food recovery and recycling, LeanPath reduced waste by 60 percent in Lower.
In addition to the to-go container program, BC Dining is also looking at an educational campaign to combat widespread myths among the student body. False impressions surrounding cleanliness and sustainability contribute to much of the waste on campus, making those misunderstandings a primary point of concern for dining services.
“One of the myths is that the metal silverware is less clean,” said Green. “A lot of students think that, even though the silverware gets cleaned and is completely sanitary while the plastic silverware never gets washed, it goes straight from the manufacturer to us.”
Another common misconception is that opting for disposable cutlery and plates is actually the environmentally friendly choice, as it cuts down on the water waste associated with washing plates and silverware.
“That is a valid concern since dishwashing does consume a lot of water, but using plastic cutlery is really horrible,” Green said. “It’s number five plastic and number five isn’t typically recycled, so it all goes straight to the landfill. It’s definitely not better than using water.”
Green also thinks that simply publicizing these issues will help foster conversations about sustainability. She sees plastic consumption and the difference between recycling, landfill, and compost as especially important topics.
Change can be difficult to pull off, but given the rollout dining services has put together in addition to asking freshmen to lead the charge, Green is quietly optimistic about the future of the program.
“BC isn’t Berkeley, and it’s not a super motivated or activist student body, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t secret environmentalists,” Green said. “It’s a really salient issue for our generation, and so I hope that it will be adopted with enthusiasm, but we’ll have to see. At BC Dining we’re excited to give it a try.”
Featured Image Courtesy of BC Dining Services