“Sustainability” is perhaps one of our generation’s favorite buzzwords and has become ubiquitous on college campuses in the past decade. Occidental Campus Dining has made significant strides in the realm of sustainability, such as the increased availability of organic and local foods and the eco-clamshell program. But there is more work to be done. As a start, Campus Dining should eliminate as many of the pre-packaged dining items sold in the marketplace as possible.
We’re all familiar with the refrigerator filled with multiple types of bottled water, Tropicana juice and rows upon rows of Naked smoothies, as well as the debate over whether these disposable bottles should even be sold on our campus. While a waste-sorting system does exist in the Marketplace, reducing this waste in the first place would be even better.
Occidental does not need to rely on the companies like Tropicana and Naked that supply the bottled juice in the refrigerator. Campus Dining should follow in the footsteps of many of our peer institutions, like Pomona College, and invest in a juice dispenser, holding large quantities of many sorts of juice and thus reducing the college’s reliance on wasteful individual bottles. The milk dispensers near the cereal bar already utilize this concept. While space in the Marketplace for new equipment is currently limited, Campus Dining could consolidate the content of some of the refrigerators to make room for new infrastructure.
Though we frequently debate the use of disposable drink bottles, how many of us think about the plastic wrap we toss aside as we toast a bagel, the tiny containers of butter in the salad bar, the cream cheese in that same trash-generating refrigerator, the individually wrapped ice cream or the pre-packaged condiments? Beyond the bottles, most condiments, sweeteners and spreads in the Marketplace currently come in single-serving sizes, creating excess waste. Most of this packaging must go directly to the landfill as it is not recyclable. However, the dining halls at some of Occidental’s peer and aspiration institutions boast bulk food services that eliminate a great deal of waste. For example, both Dickinson and Middlebury Colleges provide large tubs for butter, margarine and cream cheese, with knives for students to put the desired amount on their plates.
While the Marketplace does provide a few condiments in bulk, Colorado College goes further, providing all toppings, dressings and condiments in high-volume containers, drastically reducing the waste (and cost) of these sorts of products. Campus Dining’s sustainability intern, Dylan Bruce (senior), cited health codes as a reason for not implementing more self-serve options. However, under California health codes, non-prepackaged foods can be sold in bulk for self-service if stored in a sanitary container with a barrier between the food and contaminants. Just as the Marketplace provides a lid and scoop for brown sugar in the morning, or a sneeze guard and self-serve scoop during some nights at the main stations, they could supply the same for other condiments and toppings.
Some would argue that individually packaged foods exist for a good reason: they are convenient. While this is true, the rewards in convenience do not outweigh the losses in sustainability. It does not take much more effort to put some mustard on the edge of your plate than it does to pick up a pouch of it on your way to the patio. If anything, the packaging is inconvenient, as it requires an extra trip to the garbage can to dispose of properly. In terms of larger items that Occidental wraps individually, like bagels and muffins, it would be more environmentally friendly and convenient to follow Middlebury’s lead and provide goods in a basket or case with tongs for students to pick up and put on a plate.
Not only would introducing bulk and unpackaged foods reduce Occidental’s waste, but evidence suggests it also would lower food costs. For example, according to student researchers at Smith College, replacing the school’s single-serving butter packets with the equivalent amount in bulk form would save a total of $2,074 per semester. They found that buying other products in bulk would result in savings as well.
While some might argue that Campus Dining would accrue large up-front costs by investing in new dining infrastructure to accommodate these changes, many of the necessary replacements are fairly inexpensive — purchasing tubs and knives for butter, for example — and could generate savings for the college within a couple of years.
Shifting toward greater sustainability in the Marketplace is a smart move, both environmentally and financially — and it’s achievable, too, with the help of the student body.
“If we had student support we would absolutely make these type of changes,” Bruce said via email.