'Doing something right': Students drive Carleton College’s switch to reusable containers

(Greta Hardy-Mittell/Carleton College)

When Andrew Farias ’21 first dreamt up a reusable container program called Green2Go in October 2019, he couldn’t have guessed that a year later, his campus would be overflowing with glowing green containers every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Of course, he also didn’t know that a global pandemic would drastically change everything, including dining at Carleton College.

“Initially, I reached out to Katie McKenna in Carleton’s dining service, Bon Appétit, like, I want to talk about reusable to-go containers and what they would look like in Sayles Café,” said Farias, an Environmental Studies major who works both as a Sustainability Assistant in Carleton’s Sustainability Office and with the Food and Environmental Justice cohort in its Center for Community and Civic Engagement. “I’m still astounded by how far the program has come.”

Farias has been involved in a number of sustainability and food projects on campus, including the Swipe Out Hunger initiative, where students donate a meal swipe to benefit peers who experience food insecurity. As a member of the Waste Team in the Sustainability Office, reducing material waste in campus food services had long been one of his goals. He originally meant to run a pilot project in spring term 2020 with 100 students and 25 faculty and staff opting to use exclusively reusable containers in Sayles Café. Then, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic shut campus down, and plans were abandoned. But the Carleton Student Association had already funded the purchase of 300 reusable clamshells, and there were 280 students still on campus. So Farias and his team thought: why not try the project anyway? 

“A lot of students did not want to eat in the dining hall—they were scared,” said Katie McKenna, the Dining Services Manager with Bon Appétit. “They just wanted to take food out, and we were going through a lot of disposable clamshells every week. It was frightening, the number with only 280 students on campus.”

For the last week of spring term, a revised pilot program ran in Sayles and one of Carleton’s two dining halls. Farias and Sustainability Program Coordinator Alex Miller served as project managers, with McKenna running Bon Appétit’s end of the program. Bon Appétit Student Sustainability Ambassadors Karen Chen ’21 and Ella Hein ’23 were brought on to represent a student perspective and market the project. Chen took the lead on designing posters and a Green2Go exchange card.

On-campus students were each given a copy of the card, which they could trade out for an Ozzi brand reusable clamshell at a meal. After eating, they were expected to rinse out their container and return it at their next meal, either for a card or another container. According to Farias and McKenna, the program was informative and an overall success.

Then the college decided to bring 1,500 students back to campus in September, and they realized that the time for a full-scale Green2Go program had come.

“When we were talking about this fall, my options were throwing all this money into one-use containers that were just going to fill the compost bins on campus, or trying to do this Green2Go rollout,” McKenna said. Although compostable containers were already the default, they are still produced with disposable material and take a long time to biodegrade. 

“The other concern was there being a shortage,” Farias added. “With so many other schools relying on these compostable containers, we wouldn’t have been able to supply any more of them. Instead, we might have to turn to something like styrofoam, which in my opinion is my worst nightmare.”

So Farias reached out to Jesse Cashman, the Director of Auxiliary Services and Client Manager for Carleton’s contract with Bon Appétit. Cashman had dealt with the funding for the disposable containers during spring term; with about 2,100 meals per week at $0.26 per clamshell, they had been spending $546 every week. That would have gone up to 16,000 meals and $4,160 a week come fall term. Comparatively, a Green2Go container that can be used upwards of 300 times is only $4.10—the equivalent cost of 16 disposable containers.

“When we looked at what the cost was to get the product in here, it was pretty easy to arrive at,” Cashman said. “We’re going to return our cost here within 3-4 months of this operation, which is pretty astounding.” 

Thanks to Cashman’s advocacy, the college purchased 3,500 Green2Go containers in July, and 1,000 more in September, with money set aside for COVID-19 expenses on campus. Because it wasn’t just about sustainability; without a pandemic, Carleton would never have needed this many to-go containers. It was about safety.

During New Student Week, all meals were packaged in disposable to-go containers. But starting on the first day of classes, with many students taking their food out in Green2Gos, Bon Appétit has been able to set up limited and distanced seating in the dining halls and cafés.

“Because there are so few seats in the dining halls, because the occupancy limit is so low, having these Green2Gos really allows people to get out of the dining halls,” Farias said. “I see them on Carleton’s quad, the Bald Spot, I see them all around campus. It allows people to eat in a socially distant manner.” Even as colder weather arrives and students eat outside less often, they can take their food back to their rooms rather than crowding the dining halls.

And so far, it’s working. McKenna was initially concerned about whether students would return the containers, given a poor track record for reusable programs in the past. “We tried it once before with the reusable cups,” she said. “Students were taking soup in them and not washing them for days. They’d come back full of mold. They just didn’t care. We went through six thousand cups in the first three weeks of fall term, which is insane for a campus our size. They just weren’t returning them. But they’re returning these Green2Gos.”

Hein had similar concerns at the end of spring term. She was worried that students wouldn’t understand how the program worked or would just hoard the containers in their room.

But being back on campus, Hein has been pleasantly surprised. At the beginning of October, she conducted an inventory of the containers that showed the dining halls had the right number at meal times. Sometimes, she said, she even feels like all of her friends have adjusted to the program more smoothly than she has.

She has a theory as to why. “I think everyone came in with an ability to adapt to all of the changes this fall,” she said. “If the Green2Go program had been the only thing that was changing, if it was a normal campus year, it might have gone worse. It’s a different system, but because there are so many new systems across campus, people were just aware that they had to adapt.”

McKenna summed it up. “In an odd way, I think COVID-19 has helped this program with student awareness. I can talk about reducing waste all day long, but it really has to be something that the students buy into. They wanted to be able to eat out of the dining hall, and how could we do that successfully? The clamshells were the answer.”

Now that bringing Green2Go containers back and forth from the dining halls has become the social norm, McKenna has high hopes for future sustainability projects. Her ideas include reusable to-go silverware, small containers for sides at Sayles, Weitz, and Schultze Cafés, or a revamp of the reusable cup program. The rest of the team is right behind her. “I think this is a great example that with community participation, student participation, we can accomplish these sustainability efforts on campus,” Cashman said. “So it just opens the door to make more improvements down the road in all of our other areas that we're using disposables.”

There’s also the possibility for the Green2Go program to spread beyond the Carleton bubble. Some institutions, such as Macalester College and Bemidji State University, have their own reusable programs, and others are in the process of developing them for the COVID-19 crisis. Carleton’s unique success story can provide an example of how to do it well. Farias is currently writing a case study about the project for the Post Landfill Action Network, a resource for colleges that are working to reduce their waste. Chen has written about the program in the Bon Appétit magazine, Bravo, and the two of them are also presenting to a Cross-Campus Sustainability group of student environmental organization leaders. 

“I think we’re an example of an institution that is doing something right and is taking advantage of the special opportunity that the COVID-19 situation has presented,” said Chen. “Our model could be used as an example for other institutions to follow in step, and that would be a really awesome way to expand our impact and promote sustainability outside of just this campus.”

Meanwhile, the Green2Gos are getting an evaluation back on campus. In economics professor Mark Kanazawa’s Environmental Studies Research Methods class, one student research project is focused exclusively on the containers. Karah Haug ’21 and Alle Brown-Law ’21 are conducting a survey of students, faculty, and staff about how the program has been going. They developed their questions, both about perceptions and usage of the Green2Gos, with help from Miller and McKenna. In an instance of truly reciprocal research, they’ll report their findings back to them to be used in adjusting the program for terms to come. 

“I chose this project (and Alle would echo this),” said Haug, “because I am interested in waste habits on campus and I wanted to find out if the Green2Go program implementation has been successful. If it has and people have relatively positive responses to it, we will be one important step closer to reducing waste and the carbon footprint of the campus.”

From Farias’ perspective, the program has indeed been successful. He’s on campus but off-board this term, so he hasn’t used a single Green2Go container himself, he said with a laugh. But he’s been asking his friends, and they’ve had positive reactions. And just looking around is enough to show why. 

“Around campus during New Student Week, I would see trash cans piled high with all of the Bon Appétit to-go containers,” Farias said. “I can’t imagine what that would look like every single day, for the rest of the term and maybe even the year. I think that was a helpful visual representation for me to think, oh, maybe I am doing some good here.”

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