Boston College’s dining hall is primarily à la carte—students select food items and pay for each item. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the university has adapted to include mobile ordering and grab-and-go options. This is different from other dining hall styles where students pay a flat rate upon entering the hall and have access to an unlimited amount of food.
Boston College’s dining hall approach makes it so that about 60% of students take food to-go. Because of this trend, Boston College Dining wastes significant plastic, paper, and non-recyclable materials students use to carry food out. To help combat this problem, the dining hall ran an experiment in the fall of 2018. Two Boston College dining halls ran a pilot test of a reusable to-go container program.
The program, called Green2Go works like this:
Students must first pay a nine dollar, one-time fee for a single green container and receive a green carabiner, indicating participation in the program. Second, students bring the container to a participating dining hall to fill with food. Third, students drop off the used container at the dining hall. Lastly, students use the carabiner to exchange a new container, repeating steps first two steps in the cycle.
These boxes are BPA free, microwavable-safe, and are made of 50% recycled plastic. While there are certainly environmental benefits to buying into this college’s program, there are areas for improvement in its operation. For example, the current to-go containers are still being supplied in addition to this reusable alternative. It also costs students to participate in the program without offering an incentive, which may be a deterring factor. In addition, if a student forgets or loses the container, they must pay the fee again. Both the structure of the program and its marketing are critical elements in this experiment.
The Heights writer Riley Ford comments that for Green2Go to be successful “it is imperative that this initiative is properly publicized and incentivized to increase participation… many students will not want to go through the hassle of changing their current habits if information about the new program is not well-broadcasted.” It’s worth exploring improvements and opportunities of the program in order to accomplish its mission in an effective, accessible manner. Nonetheless, Boston College Dining’s sustainability efforts with the Green2Go program is a huge step in a battle to limit waste. Since fall 2018, the university has expanded this program to additional other dining areas on the campus, increasing the potential for a positive environmental impact.
Sustainable containers expand beyond universities. In the restaurant industry, there is a rise in online food delivery and mobile ordering, catalyzed with the pandemic. To accommodate this trend, the world has seen an increase in take-out packaging. Some restaurants implement packaging similar to that of Boston College’s Green2Go. These include eliminating single-use plastics since take-out containers are notorious for ending up in landfills and containing chemicals detrimental to health. This can take the form of reusable takeout containers, compostable products, and reusable box programs such as OZZI and Go Box. Implementing sustainable practices occurs beyond the individual or institution level as well.
In some cases, it’s the city. Berkeley, Calif., uses legislation to protect customers and the environment. Their law, which went into effect Jan. 2020, requires restaurants to provide food containers that are certifiably compostable and free of added chemicals. Additionally, they must charge 25 cents for disposable beverage cups. By July 2020, restaurants can only provide reusable foodware on their premises, with exceptions for “certified compostable paper tray/plate liners, paper wrappers, napkins, and straws” and “recyclable aluminum foil is allowed for wrapping/forming items” according to the Berkeley Single Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance. The goal of the ordinance is to “assist businesses with the shift away from environmentally harmful single use disposable foodware and toward reusable foodware.” City requirements like Berkeley’s put responsibility on businesses to be more mindful of the environment.
In relation to the restaurant industry in particular, The National Restaurant Industry’s 2018 “State of Restaurant Sustainability” states that “about half of consumers say that a restaurant’s efforts to recycle, donate food or reduce food waste can be factors in where they choose to dine.” Thus, many restaurants today have started employing sustainable practices to help the environment and draw in environmentally-conscious customers. Some areas besides packaging including local sourcing, food waste, lighting, water usage, equipment, and food waste to name a few.
One thing to note about these environmentally friendly practices: it’s an investment. Greener practices often mean higher initial costs to reap long-term financial and environmental benefits. A U.S. news article by Megan Rowe gives an example about Coasterra, a fine dining Mexican restaurant in San Diego that “invested about $1.5 million on extensive solar panels that generate about a third of the restaurant’s energy needs. The owners, Cohn Restaurant Group, estimate it will take about seven years to pay for the panels, but view the installation as a hedge against rising electric rates.” Solar panels are neither feasible nor affordable for every restaurant, but in Coasterra’s case, the owners found it the best option considering the restaurant’s needs and the potential profit from its developments. The panels were installed by HMT Electric in San Diego, as the owners of Coasterra stressed importance on the local factor. It’s also a prime example of how ideas of investing in local businesses and long-term sustainability can overlap to promote both community and environmental good.
The trend towards increased sustainability is already taking shape across institutions and industries. Boston College Dining’s Green2Go program is just one example of an active, environmentally conscious system. For the program to sustain itself for the long-term, constant assessment and appropriate adjustment is essential. After all, effective, environmentally-friendly practices in a university context are only as powerful as they are accessible and actionable.
Cover image courtesy of BC Dining