In an effort to cut back on waste, the University of Oregon has committed this year to using reusable tableware at campus dining locations.
Tom Driscoll, director of dining services, said the change should mark a sharp reduction in how much tableware waste is created. “We, in a typical year, would use somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple million single-use knives, forks and spoons,” Driscoll said, “and even if we could cut that number in half, that would be pretty significant.”
The change has already taken effect across campus, where residential dining facilities have transitioned from using items like single-use compostable utensils to actual silverware, and bringing in reusable plastic bowls and baskets. Students are allowed to take reusable items outside of dining facilities, so long as they are brought back.
Driscoll said that University Housing and Dining was responsible for the overhaul and spent the summer constructing the program. “We actually did a pilot of this a year and a half ago approximately,” Driscoll said. “It wasn't super successful at that time, it wasn't at a large enough scale, so this time we've really ramped up the effort.”
In addition to wanting to promote more sustainable waste practices, UO has also had to work around recent restrictions on what they compost. As written in an Around the O article in May, the UO Zero Waste Program stopped accepting non-food waste at campus compost bins. Oregon “compost industry leaders” had declared that such supposedly compostable materials “don't break down, hurt compost resale value and increase facility cost and workload.”
“We're still composting,” Driscoll clarified. “The only difference is that we're only composting pre-consumer food scraps — things like coffee grounds and vegetable offcuts. We are, though, getting rid of the post-consumer compost, and those were single-use items anyhow.”
Driscoll said that because the phased-out compostable articles were single-use anyway, they didn't have a great advantage over regular plastic items. “You're still using something that has a lot of embedded energy in it one time and then throwing it away.”
To work towards the success of the program, UO's Office of Sustainability helped educate the student population about the changes made. “It's a brand new program, it's going to require a lot of direct participation from students living in residence halls,” said Steve Mital, director of sustainability. “In order for it to succeed, they're going to need to bring back all those [reusable] items.”
Mital said that the Office of Sustainability had designed the outreach program and trained students to educate customers at residential dining locations in person, with the efforts wrapping up on Thursday. “They spent combined about 190 hours, starting last Friday, the first day students moved back into the res halls,” Mital said. “We had students standing at all the collection stations, they had a simple script to memorize and explain the importance of returning those reusables.”
Driscoll indicated that the long-term success of the program is rooted in students using the reusable items in the appropriate manner.
“If it turns out we don't get the things back, and we're not able to sustain it, then we're going to have to return probably to some more traditional single-use program,” Driscoll said. However, he said he was optimistic that residents would eventually internalize the change. “People are generally interested in becoming part of the solution rather than becoming part of the problem.”