A look into sustainability in on-campus dining halls

The reusable containers that dining halls have started carrying can be purchased by students to help reduce plastic waste. // Photo by Caitlin Aycock Student Publications

Tech takes pride in its efforts to increase campus sustainability and engage all community members in environmental initiatives, but how do these measures actually play out?

Coinciding with the Institute’s Strategic Plan, the Office of Campus Sustainability (OCS) created the Tech Sustainability Plan in 2021 and will follow its guidance throughout the next decade to make Tech’s campus a greener place. After many internal assessments and reviews, the Sustainability Plan features six focus areas and will be implemented with $1.25 million in funding from the Institute.

Some focus areas of concern address how members of the Tech community view sustainability and their efforts to be good environmental stewards, and another area of concern pertains to the amount and quality of sustainability research the Institute conducts. The Institute Operations area includes how Tech implements sustainable practices within its own functions.

Objectives in this focus area concern set goals on how much energy and water are used on campus, and how much waste is produced and where it goes. The OCS website outlines how these objectives will be addressed and measured, and some have already been partially fulfilled. 

For example, Tech aims for 30% of faculty and staff to commute using alternative modes of transportation compared to single-passenger vehicles, and a 2021 report shows that just over 32% of employees already do so.

Campus dining is an important part of this focus area, and Tech has more control over its sustainable practices since transitioning to self-operated dining last year. Malte Weiland, the Sustainability Project Manager for Campus Services, highlighted some initiatives on this front.

“One of the things we wanted day one with our self-operated operations was a reasonable to-go container program,” Weiland said. 

Students can now rent a reusable container when they enter a dining hall and they can bring it back to the dining halls later and receive a clean one for their next to-go meals. 

Students on the first-year meal plan can receive the container for free but can only get a to-go meal once a day, and other meal plans require a small charge when first renting a container. 

Many Tech students see the to-go meal containers as a welcome addition to Tech’s sustainability efforts. One such student, Fikayo Oshinowo, 5th year AE, said, “This is a great idea to mobilize the student body to be more sustainable in their everyday practices, especially because many student prefer taking their meals to-go.” 

Weiland said the launch of the project has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years but was excited to see its adoption at the start of the fall semester. He also said there has been some confusion with the one to-go meal per day but says that OCS wants to make sure “it’s still the most sustainable option for that one meal.”

Weiland also stated that Tech Dining is constantly trying to source from local producers.

“I think we can do a lot more of that, in the area, given that Atlanta has such great options for eating and local production,” Weiland said. “Both of these things I mentioned line up with our goals.” 

According to Weiland, the reusable to-go containers “help with a goal of minimizing the waste coming out of dining and their operations … [with] the procurement, there is a goal that a certain percentage of our purchasing in dining is either sustainably sourced or certified organic.”

Houston Freeman, Director of Residential Dining, also commented on sustainability efforts in dining halls.

“The big thing that we do with all of our food waste is we can compost it,” Freeman said. “Another thing is we try to do as many local suppliers as we can,” adding to what Weiland said about sourcing from around Atlanta. 

This also includes connecting smaller suppliers with larger ones to help with distribution of local products.

Freeman also addressed fallacies in the sustainability initiatives around dining halls, like the lack of composting infrastructure for student waste in the Brittain and North Avenue Dining Halls. In previous years, they have given out compostable plates and utensils, but had no marked compost bins for students, making this effort almost obsolete. Freeman views the switch to reusable containers and plates as a solution for this issue. 

The dining halls on campus also donate food to the Campus Kitchen Project, which disperses leftover food to food-insecure students and homeless people in Atlanta. Freeman said that the dining halls will sometimes prepare food specifically for donations, but the majority of the food comes from leftovers so they are “avoiding throwing away product that may not always get utilized.”

Other initiatives from dining include expanding the vegetarian and dairy-free options at dining halls to better meet student requests and serve less resource-intensive products. 

Freeman also hopes to expand recycling and composting at the dining halls over time, and eventually move to biodegradable products in the future. While there are areas to improve in campus sustainability, efforts have been made to reduce the Institute’s toll on the environment. 

Campus dining has put in place certain infrastructure and initiatives to use less energy and water and reduce waste, and has more planned for the coming years. For more information on sustainable changes coming to campus, visit sustain.gatech.edu