Green eco-containers pile up in classrooms, on top of trash cans, under tables and on hallway floors—found every place except where they’re supposed to be.
The Shaw Student Center at Westminster College originally supplied only compostable containers for to-go orders, providing students the option to buy an eco-container for $5 and use it all year. Starting spring 2015, Westminster began a program using only eco-containers for to-go meals, according to Rosanise Odell, the Environmental Center’s waste minimization coordinator.
“Not a lot of people bought eco-containers,” Odell said. “The compostable to-go containers were a huge part of the waste we produced on campus.”
In a graphic distributed across the college, Bon Appétit said that using a reusable eco-container for one year of lunches in place of disposable to-go ware would save the accumulated waste of “500,000 clamshells, plastic cups, paper soup containers, plastic forks, knives and spoons.” Over the course of two months, the graphic said the clamshell waste would be equivalent to the altitude of the summit of Park City Mountain Resort—about 10,000 feet.
“‘Compostable container’ doesn’t necessarily mean it will completely biodegrade,” Odell said. “It will break down but usually just to a certain extent and then it still exists. So, any time you hear the word ‘compostable’ or ‘biodegradable,’ take it with a grain of salt because chances are it will break down into smaller pieces but those pieces stick around forever. ”
Other colleges have programs where it is optional to use eco-containers through voluntary sign ups, but Westminster strictly uses eco-containers, according to Odell.
“The problems with that are people aren’t using them correctly,” Odell said. “They are just leaving them wherever they please. They are leaving them filled with a ton of food. If they are just in a random spot, which isn’t a pick up area, nobody is going to pick them up because no one knows they are there. Then there is an issue with health cleanliness on campus.”
Ryan Leonard, Bon Appétit’s general manager, said he is thinking about creating an incentive to get students to return eco-containers.
“We need to try something different,” Leonard said, beginning to brainstorm ideas. “You pay 50 cents on top of your meal, you bring the container back and you get 50 cents put back on your account or your credit card. Or if you’re on campus and you see a stack of 10 containers, you pick them up and you get $5 towards the café. Even if I didn’t have a meal plan, I would just walk around and pick up containers all day and go eat for free.”
The Environmental Center is trying to figure out the root of the problems, Odell said.
“We are going to try and see if there is a better system for where we are putting the collection sites and how we are getting that message out,” Odell said. “There is also a lot of confusion on who picks up the eco-containers.”
Leonard said he hired a student employee to pick up eco-containers around campus with the hope of encouraging other students to return the eco-containers to the correct areas after seeing a peer returning them.
“Before I hired a student worker, I myself was going around about three times a week picking them up,” Leonard said. “It’s just nonstop. As of right now, I get about four to five calls a day from faculty and staff saying there are eco-containers in the hallways. We spend about 300 hours a week in labor just to pick up these things up and that’s hitting every drop station. That’s a bit of a struggle not using the drop stations.”
Eco-containers are $5 each and meant to be re-used constantly. The compostable containers are 47 cents each and are meant for one time use.
“If you are using an eco-container correctly, that should be much cheaper in the long run,” Odell said. “Yes, it was expected to lose some [containers], but I think Shaw started with 1100 eco-containers this semester and are down to around 300.”
Bon Appétit spends $5.17 on each eco-container, Leonard said, making Odell’s speculated disappearance of 800 eco-containers a $4,000 loss this semester. With $300 a week spent in labor, that equates to approximately $4,200 in labor this semester devoted solely to eco-containers—a total combined cost of $8,200.
Sophomore elementary education major Avery Paul said she has only used an eco-container once but has since avoided them like plague.
“I avoid using eco-containers because they gross me out,” Paul said. “I hate seeing them hidden throughout campus and I don't want to be part of that problem. I see them everywhere. They are stacked on drinking fountains, in piles in classrooms and in corners of buildings. There’s one room in Converse that is a dumping ground for those containers, and the food is always spilling out of them onto the floor and desks. Maybe other people don't care, because it continues to happen.”
Eco-containers left around campus may gross out some students, but seeing them around doesn’t bother everyone.
“I see a lot of containers around in classrooms,” said Griffin Mullin, a junior neuroscience major. “It doesn't really bother me, but I can understand how some people would think it's unsanitary. I know that there are drop stations around campus, but I don't notice that students use them at all.”
Senior business management major Brock Charlesworth said he uses eco-containers often but said he doesn’t know if they are the best idea.
“Most students are already in a rush to get to class, and I think this contributes to how many containers I see all over campus,” Charlesworth said. “I don’t think college students rushing to and from class are going to take the time to take their container back to the cafeteria.”
There is an eco-container drop off area located in each building and residence hall on campus. Some are placed right at the entrance of the building, but some are more hidden, Odell said.
“I think the eco-container situation could be improved by having more collection stations,” Paul said. “As far as people wanting to put them there, I think that's just a laziness problem.”
Leonard said he believes the issue may be cultural. He said he doesn’t think students are using the drop stations because they assume someone will pick up after them.
“The problem might be bigger than people not knowing where eco-containers go,” Odell said. “I don’t know if people think it is like a restaurant where someone will bus the table or if they just don’t care. If people have solutions or suggestions, it would be really nice to hear those.