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Student input and activism directly impacts sustainable dining

April 12, 2016

A student receives a Reusable To-Go container at at Dining Center.
Reusable To-Go containers are part of the solution in eliminating waste in Virginia Tech's dining centers.

Nearly 50,000 meals are served in Reusable To-Go containers at Virginia Tech dining centers each semester. That’s 50,000 disposable containers avoided, and it’s all because of the efforts of Virginia Tech students.

The importance of sustainable practices and the passion to provide means for students comes directly from the source: students themselves. Because students have a voice and the opportunity for their opinions to be heard, they were inspired to give input, which created impact on sustainable living on campus.

The effort commenced due to an obvious problem in sustainable dining on campus.

The problem: During the 2013-14 academic year, 1.7 million meals were served in foam to-go containers, but 50 percent of those containers never even left the dining centers. 

The solution: Forge partnerships, raise funds, rally for the cause, and perform actions based on conviction.

The road to a comprehensive to-go program began in 2012, when Virginia Tech began researching other universities’ approaches to encouraging sustainable eating, and, in turn, discouraging the use of disposable options. In its initial form, students made a one-time purchase of a reusable to-go container and, after each use, exchanged their container for a key tag to use to request another container the next time they visited the dining center.

Then came "OZZI" collection units. Instead of needing to return a reusable to-go container to a staff member, OZZI collection units now do the work. Originally, Virginia Tech purchased one unit for West End Market. In the first year of OZZI machine use, participation in the Reusable To-Go container program rose by 35 percent.

A student enters a used Reusable To-Go container into an OZZI machine on campus.
Students insert used Reusable To-Go containers into OZZI machines located in many of the dining centers on campus. The machine provides a token for students in exchange for their container, and students present the token to a cashier when purchasing their next to-go order.

Dining Services conducted many focus groups, and a common theme emerged from student feedback: the OZZI units were wanted in more dining centers. The answer came from a team of student interns.

Each year, Virginia Tech’s Office of Sustainability organizes a Green Request for Proposal program open to student organizations who want to gain funding for sustainability project ideas. In October 2014, a student intern team working with the office submitted a proposal to fund additional OZZI machines. The team was granted $24,000, and two units were purchased and put in place for the 2015-16 academic year.

Virginia Tech Dining Services also recognized the need to change the culture of to-go eating. They transitioned from foam to compostable to-go containers, which cut down on waste. However, the price for compostable to-go containers was high. Because of students’ continued overuse of compostable to-go containers, there was substantial financial incentive to address customers' to-go behavior. As a cost recovery measure, students were charged $0.20 cash (or $0.10 FLEX) for each compostable to-go container beginning in fall 2015.

Then the Student Government Association got involved. Working in collaboration with Dining Services, the SGA provided funding for reusable to-go containers for all incoming first-year students in fall 2015. The Student Government Association senators collaborated to write legislation supporting the allocation of $12,000 to purchase 6,000 Reusable To-Go containers. And the effort took hold. The Student Government Association has allocated funds two years in a row to provide containers for Virginia Tech students.

Amelia Smith, 2014-15 Student Government Association Sustainability Co-Chair; Tanushri Shankar, 2015-16 Student Government Association president; and Amory Fischer, 2014-15 Office of Sustainability intern hold Reusable To-Go containers.
From left to right: Amelia Smith, 2014-15 Student Government Association Sustainability Co-Chair; Tanushri Shankar, 2015-16 Student Government Association president; and Amory Fischer, 2014-15 Office of Sustainability intern all played key roles in the expansion and success of the Reusable To-Go container program this year.

Housing and Residence Life purchased an additional 3,500 containers, and as a result, in the fall of 2015, all on-campus residents were able to participate in the Reusable To-Go container program for free.

Because of students who took the initiative with sustainability proposals, along with the backing of the Student Government Association and Housing and Residence Life, $43,000 worth of expansion costs were taken off of Dining Services' financial plate. The fall 2015 semester saw a 300 percent increase in meals served in Reusable To-Go containers at West End Market alone. Additionally, 48 percent fewer compostable to-go containers — 345,000 less containers—were used on-campus during the fall 2015 semester compared to the spring 2015 semester. This translates to $58,000 in savings from the reduction of compostable to-go container use.

All together, with OZZI machines, Reusable To-Go containers, fewer compostable to-go containers, and recovered costs for to-go eating, Dining Services saved $183,000 in just one semester while also positively impacting Virginia Tech's campus waste stream.

Written by Holly Paulette and Rial Carver.    

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