Reusable takeout containers have been slowly catching on at universities, thanks to eager students and sustainability-minded foodservice operators. However, many questions about exactly how reusable containers can work still remain. Kendall Singleton, sustainability coordinator for Aramark at 21,000-student University of Virginia in Charlottesville, talked to FSD about how her department answered those questions for their reusable container program to become a success.
How did the reusable containers come about?
The idea took root here last spring when a group of students applied for a Jefferson Citizens grant with the specific agenda of implementing a reusable to-go container program. They did not receive the grant, but U.Va. Dining liked their proposal enough that we agreed to fund them. After a trial period of container use by that same group of students last spring, we rolled out the program this year.
How exactly does the program work?
Students register to participate in the program by signing up with their contact information and a $7 safety deposit. In exchange, they receive two key cards, each redeemable for a reusable container. When the student wants one of the reusable containers, he or she will hand over a key card to the cashier—at any of the dining halls or any retail locations that serve hot meals—and receive a reusable to-go box. The student may hold on to the container as long as is convenient or necessary. They can return the dirty container to a cashier at any of the participating dining locations—they are not required to return it to the origin of checkout. Once the dirty container is brought back, it will be stored in an airtight drop bin and a key card is returned to the student. This ongoing transfer of key cards and to-go containers will continue all year. At the end of the academic year, I will get in touch with all participating students and coordinate a time and place for them to return their key cards or any dirty containers, so they can be refunded their $7 deposit. In case of missing reusable containers, the $7 will cover the cost of replacement. The program is not mandatory.
What were the challenges involved in implementing the program?
Challenges include adequate education and marketing for both employees and students. We have worked to overcome challenges on the employee end by reviewing the process with the location managers, as well as providing them with instructional signage and the necessary sign-up materials to distribute to their employees. Education and marketing/signage was important for making students aware of this new program. We used posters, table tents and tabling in the dining halls to market. We also made sure that there was always someone around who could answer any questions. We found that this has been a very effective method of both explaining the process to students and encouraging them to participate. There was also a concern about the increased water use associated with cleaning the reusable containers, but comparing that with the manufacturing and disposing of the single-use containers proved that the water use is minimal since water is a renewable resource as opposed to the chemicals used to make the single-use boxes.
How much waste do you think you’ll be able to save by making this switch?
There’s no evidence yet that Dining is ordering fewer biodegradable to-go containers, because the program has been in effect for less than a month. Plus students are registering to participate on a rolling basis and there is no deadline by which students must sign up. We anticipate seeing a gradual change occurring throughout the year. The Green Dining Committee volunteers that measure the waste output from biodegradable versus reusable containers will repeat their measurements at regular intervals during the course of the year in order to help track the evolving trend of reusable usage. Last year Green Dining volunteers conducted a second food waste audit—the first was held when trays were still in use—and determined that students created about 25% less post-consumer waste without trays. We expect to see similarly impressive statistics in our comparison of disposable and reusable to-go containers.
What advice would you give to other operators who may be thinking of doing something similar? What did you learn in this process?
Implementing reusable to-go containers is a very visible way to promote sustainability on a college campus. A positive by-product of offering students a reusable container option is that the first group of students who sign onboard are very enthusiastic and supportive of the program. This allows for two things: One is the ability to involve those students in further sustainability initiatives; and two is their enthusiasm spreads and creates a positive reinforcement that encourages other students to give the program a try.