For much of the summer, plastic straws have been the poster child for everything bad about the plastic waste that doesn’t get recycled.
Pitt’s sustainability practices have earned it a silver rating from the Association for the Advancement in Higher Education, which will hold it national conference Oct. 2 to 5 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.
"Straws are a relatively new campaign focus but things seem to be moving quite quickly,” said Andrea Huggins, programs marketing manager for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. “We are aware of several institutions that have banned straws this year, including University of Portland, CSU Chico, Johns Hopkins, Rollins and Knox College. We also know that a large number of other institutions are working towards bans and/or taking other steps to limit the use of straws on campus.”But for Pitt Dining by Sodexo, the problem is much more nuanced and needs to be approached from many directions, with a primary focus on reusable containers, according to Nick Goodfellow, sustainability coordinator for the company that provides 30,000 meals a day on the Pitt campuses.
But Goodfellow, who graduated from Pitt in 2015 with a degree in Communication and Urban Studies and has been in his current job since 2016, says Pitt is, “thinking beyond banning straws when it comes to addressing single-use disposables — we’re encouraging diners to use reusable mugs and move away from a very linear model of consumption that I’m surprised a lot of other universities are promoting by just removing straws and not taking a critical look at single-use disposables.”
Part of the Pitt’s Plan for Sustainability, released earlier this year, is to serve 50 percent of to-go meals in reusable containers by 2025.
CHOOSE TO REUSE
One of the latest initiatives has been the introduction of the Choose to Reuse container, purchased from OZZI, along with a machine to recover the containers. The green plastic containers debuted last year at Schenley Café in the William Pitt Union and will be expanding this year to the Cathedral Café in the Cathedral of Learning and to the new Forbes Street Market scheduled to open in the former 7-11 later this fall.
With the Choose to Reuse program, diners ask for their meal to be served in a reusable container, for which they will be charged a one-time 99 cent program fee (recently lowered from $5 to encourage more people to use the program). After the meal is finished, diners return the container to the Schenley Café OZZI machine or to a designated drop-off location in the Cathedral Café and collect a token.
The OZZI machine automatically dispenses a token when a container is returned, but in the Cathedral or the Forbes Street Market, the diner will have to get the token from the cashier. The token is proof that the diner has paid the program fee, so that the next time they order their meal in a reusable container they won’t have to pay the fee. They’ll just hand the token to the cashier who will give them a 10-cent discount on their meal for using the container.
Pitt currently uses 190,000 single-use containers or sandwich wraps per month. The Choose to Reuse program has 2,000 containers available, which Goodfellow and Pitt Dining hope will cut down on the need for single-use items.
“It’s a great challenge to reconsider how we’re serving food,” Goodfellow said.
He also said dining services will be phasing out Styrofoam by the end of the academic year.
“Campuses have been moving to reusable to-go containers for several years now so, the practice does seem to be fairly widespread at this point,” says Huggins of AASHE. “I wouldn't at all want to minimize the importance of it though — it's still a great step forward.”
Pitt Dining also encourages reusing items through the BYO(Bag) and BYO(Mug) programs.
Dining services relaunched the bring your own mug program in 2015, and now 14 percent of its customers are using reusable cups. Those who bring their own mugs to the more than two dozen coffee carts and stands throughout the University can get a hot or cold coffee or tea, up to 24 ounces, for 99 cents. There’s also a 25 cent discount on espresso drinks.
The bring your own bag program started in 2014, as a response to student initiatives to reduce plastic bag use on campus. It was the brainchild of students Jessica McDonald — an intern at Sodexo at the time — and Liza Boulet, who both graduated from the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences in 2014.
At Pitt dining locations and at the University Bookstores, customers are charged 25 cents if they want a plastic bag. They can opt for no bag, bring their own bag, or get the official reusable BYO(Bag) for $5. Half of the proceeds from the bag fee and half of the sales from the BYO(Bag) are donated to the Pitt Green Fund to support other student sustainability initiatives.
Goodfellow said that plastic bag usage has dropped from 30,000 per month to between 500 and 700, and since 2014, the program has prevented 1.3 million bags from being used. The bags were featured as a highlight in the AASHE 2018 Sustainable Campus Index.
REAL FOOD CHALLENGE
Pitt Dining’s other main focus is on meeting the Real Food Challenge, which it joined in 2015. The national movement aims for 20 percent of food served to be local and community-based, fair trade, ecologically sound and humane by 2020.
Market Central, in the basement of the Towers, hit the goal this year, Goodfellow said, and now Pitt Dining plans to take the program across campus and up the goal to 25 percent “real food” by 2025. This includes a push this year for more sustainable catered events on campus.
Currently, Pitt Dining uses all local apples and fair-trade coffee at the coffee carts and stands. Goodfellow also said they are stepping up their game on plant-based foods. There will be two new plant-based stations at Market Central and the Perch at Sutherland Hall featuring 300 new recipes.
“Considering that we are a large public university that doesn’t operate an extension service or have an on-campus farm and is in a very dense urban setting, I think we’re doing very well compared to other schools,” Goodfellow said. “We’re ahead of many of our peers in the Real Food Challenge.”
“Our goal to serve 25 percent less animal products is unique — not many other schools use such a metric to measure progress toward expanding plant-based dining options on campus.”
AND WHAT ABOUT THOSE STRAWS?
For years, Pitt Dining has offered straws as an option, but not handed them out automatically.
Banning them outright can create problems for the disabled. And while Pepsi and Starbucks are working on strawless options, such as sippy-type cups, the results could use more plastic and the lid may not be compostable.
So for now, straws will still be on campus, but you always have the option of not using one.