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Your homework: Find an environmental problem on campus, and fix it! Increasing sustainability at the UM food court

davesquaregreenuIn the fall of 2012, I took a class entitled “Using Communications to Influence Health and Environmental Policy: Theory and Practice”. The readings and discussions were fascinating, but what really got me excited was the semester project. Working with a group of other students, we were asked to identify an environmental problem on campus, and come up with a detailed plan to fix it. Our group was concerned by the lack of sustainable and recyclable options at the University of Miami’s food court, and focused our project on that issue. Below are modified excerpts from our group’s final project (the full document is approximately 50 pages). Though the class is over, I and others from my group will still be working with the University’s Office of Sustainability to help implement our project in the coming months. We welcome your feedback, suggestions for improvement, and assistance in achieving these goals! 

That's it- only trash cans. There are no recycling bins in the food court.

That’s it- only trash cans. There are no recycling bins in the food court.

The University of Miami has made a series of public commitments to campus sustainability, but progress has been extremely slow. One of the most obvious and public examples of waste occurs in the food court. Located in a central area of campus, the UM food court has over 3,000 transactions each day, and serves students, faculty, and visitors alike. Most of the food court restaurants provide packaging materials, plates, cups, and utensils that are not recyclable. Almost 2,000 pounds of plastic wrappers and utensils are thrown away every week, a figure that does not include the national chain restaurants. There aren’t even recycle bins located in (or near) the food court for the few recyclable materials provided by vendors!

The first step was determining what other universities do to reduce waste at their on-campus restaurants. We evaluated reports on this topic by four leading institutions: the Sierra Club, the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the Sustainable Endowment Institute, and the Princeton Review. Interestingly, no schools appeared on all four reports’ lists of the schools with the best sustainable practice, but Oberlin College appeared on 3, and three schools (University of Washington, Cal Tech, and Arizona State) appeared on 2 lists each. No schools located in the state of Florida were on any list, but the (relatively) nearby University of Florida received an overall grade of a B+.

Oberlin College has taken a variety of steps to reduce waste from campus dining operations. Disposable bottled water has been entirely banned on campus in favor of reusable water bottles. The use of reusable containers to take food from a dining area is encouraged. Composting is practiced whenever possible. Cal Tech has replaced all of their to-go containers, utensils, and bags with sustainable alternatives (biodegradable materials made of corn). The University of Washington primarily buys from vendors who use eco-friendly fuels (like biodiesel) to transport goods. The University of Florida has banned all styrofoam on campus, and offers students a discount if they bring a reusable cup or to-go container. Currently, UM does none of these things.

To learn more about the possible reasons why UM is so far behind other schools in an area we’ve publicly committed to being a leader in, we distributed a voluntary survey to students (83 responded) and conducted detailed interviews with two campus administration officials. In general, survey results indicate that students try to recycle but don’t know how the process works on campus. The survey question with the highest agreement (average of 4.2 out of 5) was “The University should do more to promote campus sustainability”. The survey question with the lowest agreement (average 2.6 out of 5) was “I am familiar with on-campus recycling operations, including which materials are recyclable and where each should be placed”. Survey results also indicated that the most popular food court restaurants were national chains (whose practices University officials have the least control over), and the few restaurants that have taken steps towards sustainable practices are among the least popular options. Students also had the opportunity to provide an open-ended response on their survey, and many indicated that they or their friends were unfamiliar with the importance of recycling or how to recycle on campus.

Results of our survey

Results of our survey

We met with UM’s retail food service director, whose responsibilities include all campus-run restaurants (not national chains). While he expressed a general desire to provide more sustainable materials, he explained numerous obstacles to this goal. Not unexpectedly, the first obstacle is cost, as providing more eco-friendly materials is more expensive for a retailer. The increase in cost varies from a 5% increase to costing almost twice as much. Additionally, there are some products that the food court currently uses for which a sustainable alternative does not exist in the correct size-switching from plastic to biodegradable salad to-go containers, for example, would result in using containers that hold noticeably less salad. In the past, transitions of this nature have resulted in student complaints (students have also complained about the use of corn-based biodegradable utensils, they “look funny” and “bend more”). The idea of switching to reusable containers was considered a non-starter because of local hygiene regulations. Finally, he noted that he had observed students frequently placing non-recyclable materials into the recycle bins.

This food court vendor provides plastic utensils that are individually wrapped in plastic

This food court vendor provides plastic utensils that are individually wrapped in plastic

We also met with UM’s sustainability director. He had been thinking about the food court waste problem and possible solutions for some time. He hopes to convince the University to officially ban plastic bags, disposable water bottles, and styrofoam to-go containers from campus, but has made little headway. He also hopes to encourage vendors to purchase materials from suppliers who minimize packaging, and to institute reusable container campaigns despite health code conflicts. Finally, he is working on creating an official sustainability policy for the campus, which would impact national chain restaurants as well.

The problem can be essentially broken down into four components- many students (and other food court patrons) are unfamiliar with the importance of recycling, many students are unfamiliar with how to recycle properly on campus, many vendors do not provide eco-friendly materials, and recycling bins are not even present in the food court. We developed a multi-stage strategy to improve the knowledge, attitudes, and practices of everyone involved.

The goals are to:

1) Have food court vendors provide biodegradable and recyclable materials whenever possible, including the use of corn-based biodegradable cups, utensils, plates, and to-go containers, as well as minimal packaging.

2) Have the University install recycling bins (at least, and possibly compost bins as well) in the food court, including visual displays which clearly demonstrate what is and is not recyclable.

3) Have the University institute an official, specific, and binding (to national chains as well as campus-only restaurants) sustainability policy, including banning disposable water bottles, styrofoam, and plastic bags from campus.

4) Create and distribute a multimedia ad campaign aimed at explaining the importance of recycling and the specifics of on-campus recycling to the UM community via posters and table displays in the food court, as well as ads and news reports in the campus newspaper and radio station.

The University of Miami has made public commitments to improving campus sustainability, but few steps have been taken to date. Food court waste represents a highly visible (and easily fixable) problem.  We hope that substantial and highly publicized improvements to such a visible area of campus will send a message to the rest of the community, and will serve as a model and catalyst for future change.