Though she has been in her position less than a year, Rachael Budowle, sustainability coordinator for Virginia Tech Dining Services, has made real progress with the department’s sustainability initiatives, such as increasing the amount of local produce and waste diversion. The latest to come to fruition is a reusable bottle program.
How did the reusable water bottle program get started?
We began investigating options for reusable bottles some time ago as part of our commitment to sustainability, particularly waste reduction. Over the past year, we worked with a team of students to launch a survey to determine student preferences, selected a bottle and developed a plan for promotion. It was exciting to see the program launched during Earth Week on the Virginia Tech campus. Virginia Tech Dining Services is committed to developing a sustainable dining and food system and this program is consistent with our values. It also helps to support university policy. We know that sustainability is taking hold nationally and is important to our students. We aim to be leaders in sustainability.
What were some of the biggest challenges involved with finding the right bottle?
Food safety is paramount for us, so we had many specifications to consider. We needed a bottle with a non-insulated stainless steel body, a wide mouth for refilling, and a separate drinking surface to facilitate food safety. We also wanted a bottle that was attractive, durable, recognizable and affordable for our customers. After extensive searching, we've found one that addresses all of these issues. We are selling the bottles to our customers at the wholesale cost ($10 for cash or Dining Dollars and $20 for Flex Dollars) with no markup, so it is much more affordable to our customers than a similar bottle would be at retail price. Soda drinkers get a 10% discount when they use their bottle. Additionally, we've combined the sale of the bottle with education about how quickly customers can "make their money back" by purchasing and using the reusable bottle and avoiding one bottle of water per day. Customers earn their money back in just eight days. The bottle is worth the cost environmentally as well; we estimate that using the bottle will save an average of 11 pounds of plastic waste per student over the course of four years.
Is there a plan to start ordering less bottled water to encourage students to use these reusable bottles?
We plan to begin introducing the bottles at new student orientation. As the reusable bottle becomes a cultural norm on campus, we hope that we can avoid more disposable plastic bottles over time. The goal is actually to phase out disposable bottled beverages in dining centers over time with student support. Dining Services, specifically, feels it can support this goal once the reusable bottle has been significantly distributed across campus. Students will need to work directly with other departments to determine if an eventual elimination is possible elsewhere on campus.
How did the roll out of the program work?
We chose to pilot the reusable bottle program during Earth Week 2010 with 200 bottles. The bottles sold out in just three days. The pilot was a huge success, and we have already placed an order for a greater quantity to be available during summer orientation and the fall semester. The sale of the bottle was paired with a thorough educational and promotional campaign. We additionally held a drawing for customers who ate at our local/organic/sustainable venue, The Farms & Fields Project, during Earth Week for five reusable bottle prizes. It was important to be able to promote a consistent message of sustainability with both the reusable bottles and the venue.
What advice would you give to other operators who might want to do something similar?
It's been helpful to work with relevant stakeholders, particularly students, from the beginning of the program. We've been able to choose the best bottle possible in terms of safety, price and appearance. Incremental steps to the program have been helpful as well. Finally, education on how and why to use the bottle is extremely important.