Dining Services unveils sustainability initiatives

| Junior News Editor

Dining Services rolled out a handful of initiatives to reduce waste in campus dining locations this year. 

The initiatives, which include a new system for returnable dishware and an increased use of plates, were created in collaboration with WashU’s new campus restaurants and food provider, Sodexo. The primary goal is to reduce waste generated by on-campus dining. 

Director for Dining Services Andrew Watling said that the primary area of concern for sustainability in campus dining is to reduce waste generated by the use of to-go boxes.

“Our campus has, for years, used an astronomical number of to-go boxes,” Watling said. “Pre-Covid, during Covid, post-Covid. We just used a ton of them.”

Dining Services partnered with ReusePass this year, a reusable packaging company, to implement to-go boxes. ReusePass is integrated with GrubHub, which Watling said allows students to easily check out to-go boxes when they order food. 

Watling said that Dining Services has tried to implement returnable to-go boxes in previous years, but the systems were ineffective in reducing waste because students were not accountable for returning boxes.

“Last year we bought like 6,000 [to go] boxes at the start of the semester,” Watling said. “They were pretty much all gone by October.” 

Under the new system, students who do not return their reusable to-go box within two weeks of checking it out will be fined $5.

Watling said he is hopeful that the simplicity, accessibility, and accountability of reusable to-go boxes will incentivize students to use them and, importantly, to return them. 

Assistant Director of the Office of Sustainability, Cassie Hage, said the new system has already made significant strides in sustainability. 

“In the first week and a half of a relatively soft roll out, we know that we saved 414 gallons of water and 40 lbs of waste from avoiding just 711 single-use containers,” Hage said. “That translates into 438 lbs of [greenhouse gas] emissions avoided.” 

Hage said that reusable to-go boxes not only reduce waste but could also have indirect benefits on sustainability.

“[Reusable dishware] will simplify our waste stream, which will have the side benefit of reducing contamination in compost and recycling,” Hage said.

A reduction in contamination means that more of the waste we compost and recycle on campus will end up in compost or recycling plants rather than being sent to normal garbage facilities. 

In addition to the new system for reusable dishware, Watling said that Dining Services plans to encourage employees and students to use plates more and single-use to-go boxes less, though they will still be present in most dining locations.

Watling said that use of single-use to-go boxes increased because of COVID-19 and that Dining Services has struggled to return to using plates. Campus dining will attempt to make plates the default dishware this year. 

“Your food is served on a plate unless you really need to take it to go,” Watling said. “I think food looks better. It tastes better. There’s no reason that you need it in a to-go box if you’re sitting in [Bear’s Den].” 

These sustainability initiatives come at the same time that new restaurants and a new food provider are acclimating to WashU. 

“With a new provider and new things on campus, this was a good opportunity for us to make a renewed push for a lot of the things that I think we’ve lost with Covid,” Watling said. 

Watling said that sustainability was a consideration in the search for new vendors, but that it was not the primary focus. That being said, sustainability is top of mind for Dining Service’s collaboration with Sodexo.

“The new partnership with Sodexo provided an opportunity for a fresh take,” Hage said. 

In particular, the two teams are working to provide more meals that are not meat-centered. 

“One of the big things is trying to make sure that people see that vegetarian, plant-based eating is not just tofu,” Watling said. “There’s a lot of other ways to do it and a lot of good options.” 

Despite hope for the new initiatives, Watling and Hage share the sentiment that there remains room for dining services to improve sustainability.

They also agreed that the initiatives will only make campus dining more sustainable if community members actively participate in them.

“I think if we’re serious as a campus about reducing the amount of waste that we have then we have to commit to that,” Watling said. “We’re going to all have to do it.”

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