Taking out the trash

Binghamton University's small changes, such as removing garbage cans from the dining room, made a big impact.

BINGHAMTON, N.Y.—Big changes regarding sustainability have been reducing waste and saving money at 14,000-student Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York. Everything from composting to an organic garden has made a big impact on Binghamton's campus during the past few years, so much so that Binghamton was named one of Princeton Review's 2008 top "Green Universities." Integral to these changes has been Rich Herb, chef manager for Sodexo, along with Dr. Juliet Berling, environmental resource manager, and Pete Napolitano, director of auxiliary services.

Testing the waters: One of the most effective strategies the dining services team had when implementing new sustainability initiatives was using a test facility to help get "green" initiatives going.

"We started using Dickinson dining hall as a test dining hall to see what worked and what didn't before we rolled it out to the rest of campus," Herb said. "One of the first changes we made was participating in a new recycling program that the university was implementing, which included composting. We were slow to jump onboard. After we started to see where these initiatives could take us, things started picking up."

What Herb and his team found was that much of what they were already using on campus was recyclable and fit into the composting program without having to source alternative products.

"Through working with the local recycling facility, we found that about 95% of what we currently had on campus could be recycled or composted," Herb said. "We had paper plates, cups and bowls and plastic spoons, forks and knives. All the plastics could be recycled. We found that all the containers off our grill could be composted, even though they weren't marked as compostable. They break down in the same time period as a traditional compostable product. We only really made two small changes. We went to a biodegradable straw and a biodegradable coffee stirrer. We are looking at an alternative hot cup right now, but we don't have that finalized."

A small change that had a big impact was removing all the garbage cans in the dining area. In doing so, customers had to return their dish trays to the dish room instead of depositing waste in a trashcan, which resulted in a daily reduction of more than 600 pounds of waste in the dining room.

"We also removed all but three waste cans in the kitchen area, so the kitchen staff is required to have a container of some sort in their workstation where they collect the compostable and recyclable material and take it directly to the dish room," Herb said. "The amount of time people are away from their workstations has greatly reduced. Our dining room attendants alone have picked up an average of 1.5 hours per shift of productive labor during a normal workday, mostly because they're not forever changing garbage cans, so there are a lot of residual benefits to helping out the environment. Also, we've always had pulpers in all of our dish rooms, but now we are using those as our composting processor. So what used to take six or 10 garbage cans now takes one composting barrel."

The compost goes to a composting facility and then is brought back on campus to use in the campus' organic garden. Berling says that the compost is also being tested as a potential bio-fuel source.

Plastic pays: With all the composting efforts, Herb says six days a week, they are removing more than 2,600 pounds on average per day of compost material alone, which doesn't include regular recycling or cardboard. Berling says this year they've taken these efforts a step further by sorting out plastic, glass and metals. Previously those materials went to a mixed recycling facility, but now they are sorting out plastics and Berling says they've found a source to purchase it to increase revenue on campus.

"A while back, when oil prices were high, plastics were getting a lot of money, but now the value has dropped a little," Berling said. "This includes plastic bottles and plastic cutlery, basically all plastics. Right now we're going to collect it, bail it and wait for the price to go up and see if that makes it worthwhile. Either way, we'll make money on it and that's extra revenue for us. We usually make about $40 per ton for cardboard, so we're hoping to make something similar to that for plastic."

Berling says that overall recycling has increased from 25% to 41% and they've reduced garbage by 127 tons, not to mention these changes have saved the department thousands of dollars in reduced hauling costs.

To dramatically reduce plastic waste, the department removed disposable ketchup and mustard bottles and switched to pump dispensers, which eliminated more than 40,000 plastic bottles from the waste stream.

With all these changes, Napolitano has words of advice for other operators who want to improve sustainability efforts.

"Starting small is a good idea," Napolitano said. "Try it out on just one unit on your campus and get your staff to buy-in. Once that happens, it permeates throughout the student body. Once you have the students onboard, then they take it with them to other groups on campus."