COVID-19 has brought many challenges for Bon Appétit, and one of them has been meeting healthy and safety restrictions while still upholding our sustainability standards. Closed dining rooms mean increased grab-and-go meals, and exponential use of to-go ware instead of the reusable china and silverware we far prefer. But despite the pandemic — or maybe because of it! — Carleton College students have worked with their Bon Appétit team to launch a successful reusable to-go container program.
Andrew Farias ’21 first hatched the idea for Carleton’s Green2Go program in October 2019. An environmental studies major who works both as a sustainability assistant in the Sustainability Office, where he is a member of the Waste Team, and as a fellow with the Food and Environmental Justice Cohort in the Center for Community and Civic Engagement, Andrew collaborated with Bon Appétit General Manager Katie Mckenna to plan a test launch of the eco-clamshells in spring 2020, with just 300 reusable containers.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing the college to drastically shift operations and put those plans on hold. There were only 280 students left on campus, yet the number of disposable containers going to landfill was horrifying to Andrew and Katie. The Carleton Student Association having already funded the purchase of 300 Green2Go containers, so they decided to do the pilot anyways. And the program was a success, with only two containers lost by the end of the semester!
They decided to take a leap and expand for the fall. The disposable clamshells cost $0.26 each, and the college expected to have to spend $4,160 per week with students back on campus in fall — plus all the waste involved. Meanwhile, the Green2Go container costs $4.10 but can be used upwards of 300 times. The college decided to purchase 4,500 Green2Go containers for fall.
The biggest hurdle with an eco to-go program is making sure that students can get a clamshell when they need it — and return it to be washed when they’re done. At Carleton, each on-campus student was given a carabiner that they could trade for a reusable clamshell. Students were expected to rinse out their container after eating, and return it at their next meal, either swapping it for a carabiner or for another container. Bon Appétit Student Sustainability Ambassadors Karen Chen ’21 and Ella Hein ’23 designed posters and marketing campaign that helped explain how the system worked and why it was so important.
The program has been so successful that the Bon Appétit team has had to face unforeseen challenges: the amount of space it takes to washing and fully dry the containers, and balancing the number of eco clamshells available at each dining hall, since students will often return a container at a different dining hall than where they got it.
But everyone agrees these problems are easier solved than the staggering cost and waste of disposable to-go containers. Katie is thrilled that the Green2Go program has worked, when a pre-pandemic reusable mug program didn’t, due to too many mugs going missing.
“In an odd way, I think COVID-19 has helped this program with student awareness. I can talk about reducing waste all day long, but it really has to be something that the students buy into,” says Katie. “They wanted to be able to eat out of the dining hall, and how could we do that successfully? The eco-clamshells were the answer.”
“I think we’re an example of an institution that is doing something right and is taking advantage of the special opportunity that the COVID situation has presented,” Karen said. “Our model could be used as an example for other institutions to follow in step, and that would be a really awesome way to expand our impact and promote sustainability outside of just this campus.”