On eliminating plastic bottles and bags, for Patti Klos

Tufts University dining services eliminates plastic bottles at retail locations.

Patti Klos, director of dining at 9,600-student Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., knew she had to wait for the right time to attempt creating behavioral changes for her students. After the implementation of trayless dining, Klos recognized that the student population would be more receptive to change and decided it was time to eliminate plastic bottles and bags at the department’s to-go location.

Q. How did the idea to eliminate these items come about?

We’ve known for a number of years that the majority of the bottles don’t get into the recycling stream. It’s something that my department has been aware of and something that’s been discussed in various forums on campus but there wasn’t a lot of interest in taking it on as a cause or altering behavior until recently. I had a couple of different students through some of our environmental groups approach me about eliminating bottles or even greatly reducing their availability. Last fall there was a class taught that studied the behavior at one of our locations on campus called Hodgdon Good-to-Go. It’s a wonderful little venue because it’s structured with everything individually priced, but we accept meal equivalents. Our undergraduates, who are required to have a meal plan, love the place because they can go there to eat or go there to stock up on items for their rooms. Because the bottled water was so readily available at that location the class observed this behavior of, ‘Oh I’ll just take it.’ An extraordinary amount of bottled water would leave that place, and not just as an individual item but as cases of water. The course was focused on environmentalism but also how to take an idea and put it into action. So they did a good job researching the current behavior, as well as putting together the argument for why bottled water isn’t often superior to our tap water. We had gone trayless last year and it seemed that students were more open to behavioral changes so we decided to get rid of bottled water at that location as one of our sustainable initiatives for the fall.

Q. What exactly has changed in this location?

When students returned to campus in the fall, we had removed the cooler that sold the individual bottles of water. We also removed the 12 packs of water. We do still sell 1-gallon jugs of water. We’ve branded the initiative as “Choose to Reuse.” The students came up with a logo that uses our mascot. So we have the Tufts elephant crushing a disposable container. We did a promotion where if a customer purchased any size of a fountain drink they got a Choose to Reuse bottle for free. We also sold them at a very low price. I think we sold about 3,800 of those bottles. When we walk around campus, anecdotally, we see about one in three students have the bottle. We also eliminated the individual bottles of soda and we increased our variety of fountain options. We’ve introduced fountains for juice. We do still have quarts and half gallons of juice and we still sell 12 packs of soda so they can take it back to their rooms. In regard to the soda, this move is actually saving customers money. If they were paying for an individual bottle of soda they were probably spending $1.65. Now we charge the small size price when they use a reusable container so that fountain drink costs about 85 cents. They are saving on lots of levels—saving money and saving the environment.

I was actually inspired by a campaign that Cal Dining [University of California, Berkeley] did. I was doing some work at Harvard and Shawn LaPean [executive director at Cal Dining] was there and he had carried his reusable bottle from California. That was the norm for them. Some of my New England colleagues and I looked at each other and said, “Do you think that will ever catch on here?” [Now that the program has been implemented] we’ve had no complaints that we know of.

Q. How did removing plastic bags come into play?

We had some other students enrolled in a different class who were interested in looking at how environmental issues affect different stations of society. They took on plastic bags. The same venue was going through about 4,000 plastic bags per week. The bags often ended up as litter; they didn’t even end up in the proper trash bin. So we eliminated the plastic bags. We understood the need to have a bag to put your to-go food in, so I worked with suppliers to find a small lunch tote-type bag that would fit a takeout container. We sell them for 89 cents. I’ve sold several hundred already. We are going to introduce it into a couple of other cafés that have a lot of takeout. We also still have a paper bag available for those who don’t want to buy the reusable bag.

Q. What were the biggest challenges involved with implementing these changes?

My management team had some reservations, which were completely understandable. They were concerned that if we made this broad change, we would be seen as less customer friendly. They were worried it would be like we were pushing views onto the broad population that may not be as equal concern to all that would dine at that location. I think their primary concern was customer service and how they would be viewed and would there be a backlash? They were also concerned that there would be some logistical impacts regarding asking students to take off a lid, fill a container and walk away versus just going up to a cooler and walking away. I think our suppliers were a bit apprehensive as well. We used a regional supplier for the water and we were a significant amount of sales for them that is now gone. They haven’t lashed out at us or anything, but when you lose a line of business it’s always significant.

Q. What advice would you give other operators who might be considering a similar move?

All of our sustainable initiatives have been partnerships with passionate students. Often the minority is more vocal than the majority so timing is everything. You can’t always wait for the most opportune moment, but in our case the community was ready for it. I would stress working in partnership with your constituents. It’s important to educate and not force the changes on them. Honestly, the bottle giveaway paved the way too. I don’t think you have to do that every year, but I think when you are first making that big leap those kind of moves can generate a lot of goodwill.