Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Pratt Envirolutions leads campaign for reusable containers

Posted 14 Feb 2011 / 0

Like many educational institutions, Pratt contracts with an outside vendor to provide its cafeteria services. Our vendor is CulinArt, which operates Pratt’s main cafeteria, the Pie Shop, and a series of smaller food stands across campus. If you want to cater an event on Pratt’s campus, CulinArt also provides these services. Since I joined the Pratt community in 2007 (and probably many years before), CulinArt has always used disposable dishware on Pratt’s campus. Without doing a proper life cycle analysis of this practice (or comparing it to the alternative: washing reusable dishware), it is pretty clear that this practice is sending a lot of styrofoam and plastic to the landfills. Add to this Pratt’s post-recycling program (which is unlikely to reclaim much of the plastic used in the cafeteria because it arrives admixed with food waste), and we have a not-so-sustainable practice on a campus that prides itself as a leader in sustainability.

Students in Pratt’s Envirolutions club have had their eye on this problem for awhile, and this year they decided to use part of their annual club budget to purchase reusable containers to give to fellow students who want to reduce their ecological impact. Early last fall, a meeting with CulinArt led to a surprising discovery: simultaneous to Envirolutions, CulinArt was also developing a “green container” program that would provide students with the chance to receive their food in a reusable clamshell container instead of the typical one-use plastic clamshell. In addition to this initiative, CulinArt also indicated an interest in rolling out other “green initiatives” including an incentive to bring your own mug for coffee and the option to use reusable baskets instead of the conventional disposable cardboard baskets.

One might think at this point that there was no more role for Envirolutions: it was almost as if CulinArt had anticipated and expanded on the club’s plan. But upon further conversations with CulinArt, it became clear that this was not the case. While CulinArt was motivated to bring in these green initiatives and knew best how to institute them on the food-provider side of this program, they really needed help on the student side. Here the role for the Envirolutions club became clear.

Working with CulinArt’s Patricia Carroll, Envirolutions students became a valuable partner in the roll-out of the Pratt cafeteria green initiatives. They consulted with CulinArt on their strategy for implementing the green containers, suggesting ways that this new service could be made more user-friendly. The way that the green container program works is kind of ingenious: rather than having students carry around (and often forget) their own personal containers (which might or might not be properly washed), students purchase a token for $5 that they can exchange for a green container when purchasing food. The students can take the container with them — either to a table in the cafeteria or back to their dorm or studio — and can only get another token when they return the container. CulinArt then washes the container. This means that while there may be a lot of tokens in the possession of students, CulinArt only needs to purchase a moderate amount of the containers to keep them in circulation, lowering the overall amount of plastic in use. While this system is smart, it is somewhat elaborate and needed a lot of fine-tuning to get students to buy into it. Members of the Envirolutions club served as the perfect conduit for student needs, allowing CulinArt to develop a more successful program plan.

Club members Hailey O'Connor and Tonya Kennedy give out free tokens at the Envirolutions Green Container information table

The Envirolutions club also provided a lot of free publicity by setting up an informational table in the cafeteria during the first three days of the green container launch. At this table, students could learn about how these green initiatives work. To further incentivize students to participate in the program, Envirolutions spent the money it had originally allocated to purchasing its own containers on a stack of $5 green container tokens. Fifty lucky Pratt students who visited Envirolutions’ table during the first hour of the first day of the launch got a free token. In exchange, these students agreed to provide Envirolutions with feedback on their experience of the program. This feedback can then be reported to CulinArt, giving it the chance to optimize the effectiveness of the program. Beyond providing all this support, I think it also helped to have students pushing hard for these initiatives: I have to imagine that CulinArt’s rapid roll-out was in part aided by the involvement of Envirolutions club members.

Working with Pratt’s Center for Sustainable Design Studies (CSDS), Envirolutions club members also helped develop a series of clear, eye-catching posters that advertised CulinArt’s various waste-reducing cafeteria initiatives. There’s also a plan — supported financially by the CSDS — to institute a “get caught green” promotion. Envirolutions students will be periodically prowling the cafeterias looking for students who are using one of the green containers. Those they “catch” will receive $10 gift cards to the PrattStore.

Envirolutions club members helped design clear, visible signs advertising green cafeteria initiatives

I think this is a pretty impressive story: students are working hard to help CulinArt develop, implement, promote, and assess a green initiative that the Pratt community has been clamoring for for years. The students have had to bend slightly in their vision, but CulinArt has also had to respond to student needs and ideas. More of this kind of collaborative work needs to go on on our campus, and I think the student members of Envirolutions deserve a lot of credit for their work on this project. I am lucky to be the advisor to this really dedicated group of student activists.

Center for Sustainable Design Studies, Envirolutions, Food, Resource Consumption, Sustainability

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