Green to Go

At Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, the campus maintenance department started complaining almost as soon as the campus dining services department began a pilot program experimenting with take-out food at one of its dining locations.

“The trash receptacles had filled up with plastic take-out food containers containing leftover food scraps,” says Nancy Levandowski, the director of dining services at Iowa State.

The maintenance people wanted to know what was going on. Levandowski told them about the pilot. Traditionally, the University had not offered take-out food service. Students on the meal plan — as well as walk-ins willing to pay — ate in the dining hall using the china that was supplied.

“College and university food-service groups are always looking for services that will help to keep students buying food-service meals,” Levandowski says. “A lot of schools are offering take-out now, and we wanted to start a take-out service, too.”

Following the complaints about extra trash and the odor of decaying food scraps caused by the plastic take-out containers, Levandowski decided to eliminate the disposable containers and look for other take-out options.

Not long after, at a conference she heard about something called the Eco-Clamshell, a reusable take-out container that appeared to be gaining popularity in colleges and universities across the country.

Levandowski checked it out, and ISU became one of the nearly 200 U.S. colleges and universities offering students reusable take-out containers, which hold down take-out costs for campus food service operations and for take-out customers, while providing a sustainable product that doesn’t clutter up trash receptacles or landfills.

The Need to Find a Reusable Solution
In the fall of 2004, Audrey Copeland, an undergraduate at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, carried out a research project investigating the effect of disposable take-out food containers on landfills for Professor Alison Ormsby’s Introduction to Environmental Studies course.

The impact was substantial. Literally millions of disposable take-out containers end up in landfills across the country each year.

In 2007, Copeland decided to revisit the idea, with the goal of finding a solution to the problem described in her earlier paper. In July, Ormsby and Copeland submitted a research proposal to the Environment Research and Education Foundation (EREF) in Arlington, VA. The foundation awarded the proposal a $32,000 grant. The grant listed Ormsby as the sponsoring professor and Copeland as the grant research and development coordinator.

The result was the Eco-Clamshell, a reusable take-out food container that could withstand the heat produced by commercial dishwashers. The finished product featured a hinged lid that ensured its durability. The product’s chemical composition eliminates the use of Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in many plastics that medical researchers have linked to heart disease, diabetes, and birth defects.

In the fall of 2007, Houston-based G.E.T. Enterprises, Inc., a melamine and plastic food-service product manufacturer, produced a prototype of the Eco-Clamshell, and Eckerd College put it to use in its food services operation in April of 2008.

With the success of the Eckerd pilot, G.E.T. has developed a line of reusable take-out containers that includes clamshells in several sizes, a sandwich container, soup container, and several sizes of tumblers with reusable lids.

The Take-Out Program Takes Off
About 1,800 students attend Eckerd. Two hundred students signed up for the reusable clamshell container within two weeks of its introduction. The program is in wide use on the campus today.

To ensure that the clamshells are returned for reuse, students that participate in the Eckerd program incur a $5.00 charge against their student accounts. The charge covers the cost of the container and adds a small premium for washing the container and administering its use in the program.

In the Eckerd program, students go to the dining hall and check out a container by swiping their student cards and filling the container with food.

On their next trip to the dining hall, a student swaps the first container for a clean one. The first one is washed and stacked up to wait for another user. A student may also return a container without taking another meal. The system notes the return on the student’s account, ensuring that he or she will have access to another container when requesting another take-out meal.

There are many ways to organize a reusable take-out system. Some dining halls give out tokens when students return the container. Others use a bar-coded tag on a key chain.

In a recently introduced experimental system, a student deposits the container into a device and receives a token that can be used to acquire another container. The automated system eliminates the need for food-service people to spend their time dealing with the reusable containers.

In each case, students that fail to return their container must buy another before receiving another take-out meal.

Except for the cost of washing the reusable containers and administering their use, there is no cost to a college or university to implement a reusable system — unless the institution wants to provide the containers free of charge.

Some campuses may allow students to buy their own containers and be responsible for washing them between uses. Campus food-service providers, however, tend to frown on this approach. Eckerd’s food service contractor, Palo-Alto, CA-based Bon Appétit, for example, notes that this method could inadvertently spread disease. Bon Appétit insists on washing the containers in its own facilities to ensure that they are properly sanitized before reuse.

Since the test year, both Bon Appétit and Philadelphia-based Aramark have adopted reusable take-out containers and rolled them out to their food-service customers in higher education.
Aramark Higher Education began experimenting with the program in 2008 and 2009, conducting five pilot programs at Baylor University in Waco, TX; Peace College in Raleigh, NC; Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“In the pilots, we received positive feedback from students and significantly fewer disposable containers going to the landfill,” says Rita Alison, national senior manager of sustainability and environmental stewardship with Aramark Higher Education. “Baylor reported a 40 percent reduction in disposables sent to the landfill during its pilot, which lasted one academic year.”

Based on the results of those pilots, Aramark Higher Education undertook a major rollout of the concept to its college and university customers in 2009 and 2010. Calling it the “Re-usable To Go” program, the company has since signed up more than 100 schools.

The University of Texas at Arlington Makes the Switch

Among Aramark’s college and university accounts is the University of Texas (UT) at Arlington, which brought the program on board in August of 2010.

Chee Wee Lee, director of operations with the University’s Dining Services department, says that the department started its take-out program with Styrofoam containers a couple of years ago, but decided that they were too environmentally expensive.

The department then switched to compostable paper containers. Lee estimates that the cost for the compostable containers was close to $2,000 per month for about 8,000 containers. “The compostable containers were pretty pricey.” Lee says. “We heard about the reusable clamshell from Aramark. So we reached out and gave it a try.”

The University housing directors liked the idea because take-out containers with food scraps stopped filling up the trash receptacles in student residences.

“Students on our meal plan get a container at no charge, when they take out a meal,” Lee says.

The other parts of the UT at Arlington program resemble that of other schools. A student swipes an identification card, which logs a container out against the student’s name, and the dining hall hands over the take-out food in a container.

When a student comes back for more, he or she exchanges the used container for a clean one. Or the student can simply return the container for credit.

Aramark’s Alison says she expects the program to continue to grow: “Our goal has been to positively affect the waste stream by reducing disposables sent to the landfill, reducing associated disposable costs, and increasing student satisfaction. It has been exciting to see the program grow to over 100 schools. Now we’re seeing it move into campus retail and catering services.”