Penn State Goes Green

Categories:  Community    Environment    News & Politics
Wednesday, October 1st, 2014 at 7:15 AM

Even if you’re only vaguely aware of environmental issues, you may cringe as you throw that white take-out container into the trash after a to-go meal. You know it’s going to the landfill. But, hey, it’s just one, right?

Multiply that one polystyrene container by the approximately 98,000 students in the Penn State University system and things start to add up. Fast.

If each of those 98,000 students (not counting faculty and staff) uses one container a week for the 30-week academic year, you end up with, potentially, 2,940,000 foam containers going to the landfill. And that’s just one academic year across the Penn State network of higher learning at merely one container per week.

At Penn State University, a few years back, Lisa Wandel, director of residential dining at University Park, wanted to do something about that trash and spied more eco-friendly containers at another university. She investigated but found that due to Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture regulations concerning sanitation and health, she would have to seek a variance to utilize reusable containers at Penn State. She persisted and got the variance.

The next step, however, was implementation. To test it, university officials chose the University Park and Behrend campuses for the trials because each had both resident and commuter cafeterias. Then, remarkably, they handed it off to a team of three Nittany Lion marketing students, Keirstan Kure and Emily Newman from the University Park campus and Isaiah Boswell, from Penn State Behrend. In what would become an exciting internship experience in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014 semesters, the three students researched containers, conducted focus groups, created the Green2Go marketing campaign, and implemented a pilot program at both campuses.

The very clever tagline? “Reduce your carbon pawprint.”

“It was an amazing opportunity,” says Boswell, a senior this year. “We created signs, ‘Take me Out’ T-shirts, and met with sustainability and environmental-based groups and classes.”

Boswell met with the group Greener Behrend, sent emails to every student on campus, gave containers to every dormitory Resident Assistant, and handed out those T-shirts to key groups. He also went on a person-to-person marketing campaign, walking around campus and talking to anyone who would listen.

The Green2Go container is a durable polypropylene that is designed to close securely, be reusable, microwavable, and able to withstand the heat of commercial dishwashers. How the program works is this: When first acquiring one, a person pays a five-dollar deposit, fills up the container and goes. When it is returned, a five-dollar refund is issued. If getting more to-go food, the person takes a new one and proceeds. The returned one is then washed and inspected for cuts or defects before it is returned to service.

It is anticipated that the containers can get 30 to 40 uses before they have to be retired, which, of course means a trip to the recycling bin and not the trash.

Boswell found some students – the ones more eco-aware – took to them readily; others had their doubts and didn’t like the fee to use it. But most — even some early naysayers – came around. Boswell related that a friend – the president of another fraternity on campus – was dubious and told him “no one’s going to use it.” Surprisingly, after the program did succeed, Boswell said the friend came back to him and said, “Dude, I’m sorry. I never thought it would get so big and go so far.”

And far it did go. During the pilot program in the spring of this year, approximately 10 percent of students purchased and used Green2Go containers, a success, according to Mike Lindner, director of housing and food services at Behrend. “For a pilot program, that is a huge success. We weren’t expecting too much; this exceeded our expectations.”

Now in its first full implementation at 11 Penn State campuses, program organizers have a goal of 25 percent participation in this first year.

“We expect it to build every year,” Lindner says. “If you can get the students to participate from the beginning, they will consider this the norm, rather than the alternative.”

Since it’s early into the new semester, not enough data have been accumulated to measure success. But Lindner sees a lot of Green2Go containers around campus. Karen Kreger, regional director of housing and food services for Penn State’s western campuses, echos Lindner’s enthusiasm. “I think the Green2Go container is a great option for our students. Participation this fall has been fantastic; we are very pleased with the results so far.”

But does it add to overhead? Not at all, according to Lindner.

“The extra effort of processing them — washing and inspecting — is offset by the fewer polystyrene containers we have to purchase. That’s why I am so excited about this program. It demonstrates to the business world that you can be sustainable and still make decisions that are good for business.”

And it might also be attractive to students in two, less obvious, ways. Boswell explains that the Green2Go containers snap shut more tightly, keeping the odors of leftovers stowed in dorm room refrigerators from smelling up the space. “That can be important in the dorm,” he says with a laugh. The second way may be close to a student’s heart. “It holds more food than a regular container,” says Boswell. “I can get more salad in it. That’s a good thing.”

And for Boswell himself, Green2Go has been an amazing adventure. He says it gave him more responsibility than he ever had before and made him work harder than he ever has.

“I am now more determined and confident,” he says. And while those are all great things for him, Boswell adds that the most important part of Green2Go was not what he got out it. “I benefited myself, yes, but Green2Go benefits everyone else, too.”

Mary Birdsong can be contacted at mBirdsong@ErieReader.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @Mary_Birdsong. 

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