Eliminating waste—food and otherwise—on college campuses

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While food waste remains a growing concern among college and university foodservice operators and students alike, plastic waste in particular outweighs even food waste when it comes to today’s concerns.  According to Technomic’s 2019 College & University Consumer Trend Report, 50% of students say they would like their school to reduce plastic waste by eliminating single-use plastics like straws and cups, compared to 40% of those who said they would like to see more efforts in food waste reduction.

Colleges and universities can start small by eliminating single-use plastics such as straws and work up to more in-depth initiatives such as food waste reduction programs. For example, Ohio State University aims to divert 90% of its food waste from landfills by 2025. Already, more college and university foodservice operators are meeting the demands to reduce plastic waste by phasing out plastic straws, managing oil better and employing other strategies; read on to learn more.

Invest in compostable, recyclable and reusable to-go containers

As more students choose to eat off-site, college and university foodservice operators are challenged with the need to find the right packaging that will not only preserve the quality of the food and entice students when displayed, but can also be easily recycled, composted or even reused.

According to Technomic’s 2019 College & University Consumer Trend Report, on-campus delivery will only increase; today, 21% of students’ meals are delivered, up from 17% in 2017, and a whopping 69% eat off-campus at least once a week.

Environmentally friendly food packaging, therefore, continues to grow as a concern among students, with 44% reporting that they want their college or university to pay attention to this.

In addition to sourcing compostable, biodegradable and/or recyclable packaging for food and beverages, some campus dining programs are experimenting with heavy-duty, reusable to-go containers that can be returned and cleaned for future use.

Carefully considering how items are packaged is another part of this puzzle. For example, Windham School District in Windham, N.H., has invested in specialty containers, like a chip-and-dip container, for all-in-one packaging without the need for extra plastic parts.

Buy in bulk and invest in reusable storage containers.

At the back of the house, chefs and dining directors are cutting down on plastic waste by purchasing more items in bulk. It’s also possible to work with suppliers to determine ways to deliver orders in non-plastic containers, or at least in ones that can be returned and reused.

Many smaller, local farmers also offer this option, or use reusable or biodegradable cardboard to store and ship food.

Eliminate single-use plastic straws

According to Earth Day Network, 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually is left to flow into oceans.

Following several state-wide bans on plastic straws in the past couple years, and coupled with a fast-moving movement by both independent restaurants and major chains around the globe to dump those straws or switch to compostable or reusable ones, many colleges and universities are now jumping on the bandwagon to better protect marine life.

California State University, for example, has a plan to completely phase out plastic straws by 2025, and currently offers them only on special request. Other facilities following suit include Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Knox College in Illinois and others.

Manage oil better

This one’s a biggie. Traditional, self-operated oil management is a dangerous, labor-intensive job in the kitchen, not to mention it requires the purchase of thousands of pounds worth in plastic containers per year, per operation.

As part of an overall effort to reduce plastic waste, more foodservice operators are partnering with vendors to set up an automatic oil cleaning and replacement solution using tanks and wires, without the need for plastic containers or manual labor. Some operators doing so include Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif.; Liberty University in Virginia; the University of Cincinnati in Ohio; Ohio State University; and Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The used oil can then be recycled into biodiesel or used for animal feed, enabling universities to further elevate sustainability efforts to the growing number of students and parents concerned about sustainability.

By taking small steps such as those listed above, noncommercial foodservice operators can continue their forward-thinking efforts toward reducing plastic waste now and in the future as a way to cut down on waste as a whole. Doing so not only protects the environment, it can also cut down on costs and—perhaps more importantly—appease the growing group of Gen Z students who care deeply about sustainability and want their institutions to show they do as well.

This post is sponsored by Restaurant Technologies