Gustavus Adolphus College: Environmentally Conscious Changes on Campus

Gustavus Adolphus College is a private liberal arts college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in St. Peter, MN. In an integrated and conscious effort to promote sustainable efforts, choices such as reusable to-go containers, high-efficiency washing machines, and fluorescent light bulbs are a few of the many changes the Gustavus campus has undergone as a way to convert to new energy-efficient and pro-green policies.

In an attempt to cut back on waste, the College’s Dining Services introduced reusable to-go containers, known as “Gustieware,” this past fall. Serving as an alternative to the cardboard carryout containers already offered, Gustieware is available for community members to take, fill with food, and return for dishwashing. The containers are then reused. The program is believed to be the first of its kind and has received national attention.

“I think it is a huge success in the reduction of cardboard containers. We have used less than half of what we did last year at this same time. To date, through January, we have used about 30,000 less containers than we did last year,” said Director of Dining Service Steve Kjellgren.

By the end of the school year, Kjellgren believes Gustavus may use 120,000 fewer cardboard containers than it did last year, due to the fact that carryout is a more popular option during the spring semester.

Many students like the program.

“I like it a lot better than the paper stuff, and it’s a lot better for the environment,” said sophomore English major Audrey Neal.

Where Did They Go?
While the program has been largely successful, Dining Services has had some trouble getting the containers back. “At any one time, we have between 50 and 300 in this building, so 2,700 of them are out there. Whether we will ever get those 2,700 back, I don’t know. I don’t know if we bought 3,000 more, if we would then have 3,300 here, or whether we would still only have 300,” Kjellgren remarked.

Some students have made returning Gustieware a habit, however. “I always bring it back,” said sophomore Kate Ibberson. “I don’t understand why it is so difficult.”

Kjellgren believes that the community is progressively doing a better job returning containers. He is not getting reports of Gustieware being found in the trash, as he did when the program was first implemented. “I think that there is a learning curve. This is new for all four classes this year. I am confident that [returning Gustieware] will just become part of our culture here,” he said.

Kjellgren also said that students are not the only ones who do not always bring containers back in a timely fashion. “I had a custodian stop and say, ‘You know, I don’t mind bringing them back from academic buildings if I see them or in the residence halls, but I draw the line at the administration building. They should be more thoughtful than that,’” Kjellgren laughed.

Taking Up the Collection
Some people have suggested that either a deposit or collection system be implemented to help make sure Gustieware is returned. “If they just put containers in every section, then it wouldn’t be a problem,” said first-year student Jake Albrecht.

Dining Services currently operates Gustieware collection containers in the library, in cooperation with the custodial staff. Kjellgren does not believe that Dining Services should need to pick up containers from places like residence halls. They also decided against implementing a deposit system. “We considered the idea of a deposit… but then we would have to have a return area somewhere, not at a cash register. The logistics of that didn’t work,” Kjellgren observed.

The other option for students is to purchase one of the old cardboard carryout boxes. “If it is too much of a bother for you to bring it back, then you will have to buy a box. You are making choices, and we are giving you choices,” said Kjellgren.

While the choice to buy cardboard boxes still exists, those boxes now cost more than they did last year. Dining Services used to charge just a break-even cost, but Kjellgren reported that feedback from students indicated that the former price was not enough of a disincentive.

Others Are Watching

In addition to the buzz on campus, the Gustieware program has also drawn a lot of attention to the College from other institutions. “The eyes are on us, and that I think is really cool. Nobody is doing this, but they all want to do it because it is the right thing to do,” Kjellgren said.

He has heard from foodservice staff at other institutions who are interested in the program, including staff at Dartmouth College; Virginia Tech; Augustana College (Rock Island, IL); Saint Mary’s Hospital (Duluth, MN); The United States Air Force Base in Clear, AK; an insurance company in Tennessee; and the City of Toronto, Canada.

Many of these institutions have plans to start a similar program, if they have not already done so. Augustana College plans to begin offering plastic carryout next fall. Virginia Tech plans to do the same, once it works out some concerns with their health department. Saint Mary’s Hospital in Duluth started a similar program in January of this year.

While many schools could cut back on cardboard container consumption by using plastic containers, Kjellgren said many colleges similar to Gustavus would not benefit from a similar program because of how their meal plans are structured. “The vast majority of colleges do not have the problem to the extent we do because they do not have an à la cart meal plan. They have the ‘all-you-can-eat in the dining room’ plan,” he said.

Kjellgren also said that the program might not work well at colleges and universities with large student bodies or at institutions with a large population of students who reside off campus, but that it works well on small, enclosed campuses like Gustavus.

When the College’s Market Place was redesigned in the mid-1990s, Kjellgren tried to respond to student requests for equity (in charges for students eating different amounts of food), longer hours, and waste reduction. The à la carte system was implemented at that time. Because students are allowed to take food out of the Market Place, takeout containers were needed.

A Green Marketing Tool
In addition to the use on campus and the interest from other institutions, the College’s Admissions Office is now purchasing Gustieware to use to thank high-school admissions counselors.

“We wanted to come up with some kind of an appreciation gift that we could give to high school counselors as we visit their high schools, in recognition of all that they do to help us. We said, ‘You know, wouldn’t it be neat if we took the little Gustieware containers and filled it with some fun little gifts and gave it as an appreciation message, but at the same time it gets out the message about Gustavus’ commitment to a greener campus?” said Associate Director of Admission Megan Coe.

Overall, Kjellgren is very pleased with the Gustieware program being used to market the college and as national model for sustainability. “When other colleges or places call and ask, I say, ‘You know, it’s going really well. Compliance isn’t where it needs to be, but I think we are getting there.’ I think that Gustavus students should be proud to be a part of this,” said Kjellgren.

Other Green Initiatives on Campus
The College’s Physical Plant has been working alongside Dining Services in the ongoing environmental initiative. Most of the 32W fluorescent light bulbs in the Market Place have been replaced with 25W bulbs. Although this would normally mean less power and less light, Director of the Physical Plant Warren Wunderlich explained that theoretically, the switch would produce as much, if not more light. Wunderlich noted that in addition to saving energy, the lower-watt bulbs save the campus money. Other lighting projects across the campus include sensors that turn off or dim lights whenever a room is empty or there is sufficient sunlight.

Last summer, high-efficiency washing machines were installed in all the residence halls. These machines run on a special detergent and will save both resources and money.

About $40,000 was spent during the summer to replace many of the toilets on campus. These toilets were in older buildings and predated legislation that mandated that toilets flushed no more than 1.6 gal. of water. "Fifty percent of the toilets were older than that and flushed three, four gallons. We replaced those with 1.1 gal., or 1.28,” said Wunderlich. This effort came about due to rising costs of water, and he expects that in three years Gustavus will see substantial savings in both money and gallons of water.

Head of the College’s Johnson Center for Environmental Initiative, Jim Dontje said, “We have a unique situation where we can both do and teach at the same time. We need to change ourselves as we teach students to go out and make change in the world.”

One of the projects in which he is involved is the planning of a new academic building. “Environmental concerns, such as energy, but also material use and the quality of the space and the daylighting and air quality, are all part of the discussion.”

An Ongoing Process

Dontje, Kjellgren, and Wunderlich realize there are still more challenges to overcome. Dontje says the solution to the campus’ energy consumption could be installing wind turbines. For Dining Services, there is still the issue of food waste, and Kjellgren wants to see a composting effort established.

Wunderlich has been able to make cost-saving changes, but says the campus’s greatest environmental challenge — replacing fossil fuels with alternative sources — will be costly.

“As we proceed, we’re going to be bumping up into some more expensive alternatives, and perhaps a decision may be called for to do them even though the economic payback might not be as good, just because it’s the right thing to do,” said Wunderlich. “At some point these become motivated by doing the right thing instead of saving the most money.”

Tom Lany and Charles Owens are staff writers for The Gustavian Weekly (, Gustavus Adolphus College’s student newspaper.