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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2015 / 03 

Compostable to-go containers eliminate 'elephant in the room'

March 16, 2015

Composting a to-go container
The next step in sustainability – compostable to-go containers in Virginia Tech dining centers.

Last year, Virginia Tech Dining Services used more than 1.5 million foam containers. Rial Carver, sustainability coordinator for dining services, said that foam to-go containers had become the sustainability “elephant in the room.”

“It is the number one complaint I receive,” Carver said. “Students are constantly asking, ‘Why do we still use foam?’”

This semester, Dining Services transitioned away from foam to-go containers by offering four sizes of compostable to-go containers.

“I am thrilled to see dining services making the transition from foam containers that fill up landfills to compostable containers that can break down into fertilizer and mulch for gardens and crops,” said Amory Fischer of Charlottesville, Virginia, a junior majoring in Environmental Policy and Planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Fischer is an intern with the Virginia Tech Office of Energy and Sustainability. “This innovation demonstrates the commitment by Virginia Tech to minimize waste and achieve a 50 percent recycle rate by 2020, a goal outlined in the university's sustainability plan.” Virginia Tech achieved a 43.16 percent recycling rate in 2013.

The switch to a more environmentally-friendly to-go option has been on the table for quite a while, Carver said. The biggest hurdles were the price of the containers, which are roughly three times the cost of foam, and ensuring that compostables are actually being composted. 

“After a trip to another university that switched to compostable to-go containers several years ago, we realized that Dining Services has a role in spearheading broad change on campus,” said Carver.

Over the summer, Carver weighed many different compostable to-go container options, considering durability, materials used to make the containers, where they were manufactured, heat resistance, and cost. After rigorous testing, the decision was made to go with compostable containers made of bagasse, the natural cellulose fibers that remain after sugarcane has been processed to extract its juices.  The containers are manufactured by the Portland, Oregon-based firm StalkMarket.

 “The tricky part will be to get the word out to all students across campus that these containers are compostable instead of landfill trash,” said Fischer, noting that Dining Services will do a lot of student outreach and the Office of Energy and Sustainability will make the compostable to-go containers a focus of Recyclemania this semester.

“Students are welcome to bring their to-go containers back to the appropriate receptacles or conveyor belts to ensure that the compostable containers are in fact composted,” Carver said. “Hopefully, in the coming months we’ll be able to start working on solutions for compost collection throughout campus.”

The compostable to-go containers are already having an effect. Overall, the amount composted in dining centers increased by 35 tons in January and February of 2015 as compared to the same timeframe in 2014. For the first time since the composting program began in 2009, one dining center is sending more waste to compost than to the landfill. In the first two months of 2015, West End Market achieved a 55.5 percent diversion rate and Owens Dining Hall achieved 47.6 percent. The entire Dining Services program achieved a diversion rate of 46.2 percent in the first two months of 2015, a 4.2 percent increase over 2014.

Dan Flannery of Wall, New Jersey, a senior majoring in Biological Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering, is president of the Environmental Student Organization and student assistant manager at West End Market. Flannery said Virginia Tech needs to continue to think about long-term solutions to waste.

“Although the introduction of these containers is a step in the right direction, and probably a step ahead of a lot of other universities, compost is still waste, so this doesn't really address the real problem of the excess of waste that we generate,” Flannery said. “We should be primarily focused on reducing our waste, and reusing products, like plates and the green to-go containers. Those will serve as suitable, fundamental, long-term solutions. If we're a university that embraces ‘Invent the Future,’ we must eventually embrace reusable products.”

In 2013, Dining Services launched the Reusable To-Go  program, which gives consumers an easy way to reuse water bottles and food containers. Last year, it introduced Sit & Sort, a mobile-friendly website to help consumers recycle and compost. At last fall’s Zero-Waste Hokie Hi Picnic, Dining Services used compostable to-go containers as well as compostable utensil kits. Everything was compostable except for the beverage containers, which were recyclable.

“The Zero-Waste Hokie Hi Picnic showed incoming first-year students that sustainability is a shared value on this campus,” Carver said. “We are slowly creating a culture of sustainability at Virginia Tech.”

“Students deserve tremendous credit for advancing sustainability on campus,” said Denny Cochrane, sustainability program manager for the Office of Energy and Sustainability. “They were the lightning rod that really paved the way for the university to get serious about climate action and developing our unique climate action and sustainability plan.”

Written by Emily Hughes of Ashburn, Virginia, a sophomore majoring in communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Brooke Williams of Christiansburg, Virginia, a junior majoring in English and communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

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