OSU expands sustainability with high-tech cup program

OSU student RFID Whirley cup

From Whirley DrinkWorks

The foodservice department at Ohio State University knew it had to get creative to beef up campus sustainability efforts.

The nearly 65,000-student campus banned plastic bags and went trayless a half-dozen years ago. So, school officials turned their attention to landfill-hogging, wax-coated soft drink cups. This fall, OSU launched an innovative effort that combines modern technology with a little psychology.

OSU handed out 15,000 high-tech, personalized cups to all incoming first-year students and returning sophomores. The 24-ounce cups, which are printed with each student’s preferred name and made by Whirley DrinkWorks!, feature RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) technology from Whirley subsidiary ValidFill.

A barely noticeable sticker embedded in each cup communicates with the school’s new network of 20 Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers around campus. Each of the personalized cups came encoded with 10 free drink refills. After those run out, students can purchase additional drink bundles at reduced prices.

"I originally thought the requirement for 15,000 individual pieces of artwork was a deal- killer,” says Gregory M. Edelson, ValidFill president, “but Whirley and OSU collaborated to find a printing solution and an on-trend vessel and really pulled off a first-of-its-kind program."

Getting thousands of cups in the hands of students is a massive initiative. But it’s one that addresses student concerns. Some 39% of college students say it’s important to reduce waste, and 46% say it’s important to promote recycling or use recycled or biodegradable materials, according to Technomic’s 2015 College & University Consumer Trend Report.

Inspired by the book “Influencer” about creating social change, OSU looked to create a reusable cup program that would be sustainable and well-used. 

“Chances are, when you have something personalized, you’ll hold onto it,” says Zia Ahmed, OSU’s senior director of dining services. “It was a bold move on our part.”

Students received their cups directly from their resident advisors in each dorm.

“What a great way to connect with new students,” Ahmed says. “The first message they hear is about our commitment to sustainability.”

The school, Ahmed says, has looked to develop a sustainable-cup program for the past 18 months. The partnership with Whirley, VaildFill and Coca-Cola, he hopes, will increase the success rate of the cups.

The Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers offer about 70 low- or no-calorie drink options. Students also are encouraged to fill their cups at free water stations around campus.

Students can purchase replacement cups for $15. Off-campus students can buy a cup loaded with 10 drinks for $24.99.

The RFID technology tracks aggregate user data but not individual consumption, Ahmed says. “There’s no last name attached to it,” he adds.

The school hopes the personalized cups, emblazoned with the eye-catching OSU logo, will also drive snack and beverage sales.

OSU committed to the RFID cup program for two years. It will likely see some tweaks as time goes on, Ahmed says.

“What we are mostly excited about is what we learn throughout the process,” he says.

The program is too new to have generated any data on use or sales. But it’s already creating a buzz among students on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook under the hashtag #MYCup.

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