Boston College has long been committed to reducing waste and on sustainability — from its student compost program to its “Skip the Straw” and “Choose to Reuse” campaigns.
Some programs are on pause due to COVID-19 but one of them, focused on food donations, kicked into high gear through the pandemic’s peak, despite that the students behind this work were no longer on campus to keep it going. In their absence, staff stepped in and took the program far and fast, to meet increased needs.
Now that students are back and working to adapt to COVID-related life changes activity has slowed, but Frank Bailey, associate director of Food & Beverage, Dining Services, is excited about what was accomplished as the pandemic surged and plans to scale as big as he can soon.
Pre-COVID, at the end of every night, dining hall staff broke down food lines; determined what was safe and nutritious to donate; and student volunteers logged, packaged, and labeled it and staged it for pickup by a company that distributed it to shelters.
“It was a good but small-scale program," says Bailey. "Then when COVID-19 hit, we had giant walk-ins filled with food, almost all perishable, as we had almost completely shut down immediately and went from 24,000 meals a day to a couple hundred and had just brought in major orders."
He continues, "there were people in need here in Boston and in surrounding communities. So, we rebuilt the model that we depended on students for, using employees to do the work and on a larger scale."
Bailey started by calling campus governmental affairs who in their dedicated roles communicated with local government. Staff there could connect Bailey with charity groups who needed donations.
Campus drivers and university vehicles normally delivering food to dining halls were deployed to take the food throughout the city and surrounding areas.
They brought fresh produce to the YMCA and complete meals to other charity organizations. A local business, Signature Bread, donated pallets of bread that the dining hall repackaged in quantities appropriate for shelters to give to families.
“We were helping people and feeling good about it, so we reached out to suppliers that we used to order from and asked do they have food they want to move. They had food but did not have people to process, and I had the people,” says Bailey.
At one point, the college was sending 5,000 meals a day to the Brazilian Worker Center in Boston alone. Within a few months, staff had reached 152,000 people in need throughout the region.
Now that the students have returned, Bailey says, “We need to focus on safe student dining, so our donation program is on hold. When we restart, it will be students again, but with much more interaction with our staff so we can grow the program faster. After the past five months of vastly increased community donation work, our staff are already pushing us to get more involved.”
In this COVID world, he suspects it will take a little longer to get up and running, but already volunteer student managers have signed up. And Dining Services created a "food waste task force" to ensure it does not lose sight of its goals to mitigate waste while providing meals to hungry people.
“I expect that we will open small scale initially, but now that we have experience running a larger food reclamation program and we have developed partnerships with various non-profits it should be relatively easy to build a larger program,” says Bailey.
Another initiative is a student-run composting group. Students with kitchens in their dorms receive training on the process, as well as bins to collect their food waste, which they drop off at designated collection points around campus to be sent to an anaerobic digester to be made into compost. Since everyone is in charge of their own drop-off, it is a contactless system.
“Now more than ever, composting is crucial on campus, given that so many students are cooking more regularly in their apartment-style dorms,” says Carmen Hamm, an environmental studies student who manages the compost initiative.
“It’s a way for students to take initiative in their dorms and to get involved in the sustainable movement at BC," she says. "Not only do we hope to reduce methane emissions by composting, we also want to highlight areas in which BC can grow in its commitment to environmental sustainability."
The college also pushes hard to reduce single-use plastics.
“We at one point were using about 10 million single-use plastic items in dining halls in one year, from utensils to straws to plates and cups. It’s costly and wasteful and bad for the environment,” says Julianne Stelmaszyk, manager of Regional and Sustainable Food Systems for Boston College Dining Services.
Staff started handing out straws only when diners asked for them, resulting in a 26 percent reduction in plastic straw consumption in one semester. They got students excited about the prospect of eliminating waste through novelties like bamboo utensils sold at the register with Boston College printed on them.
And they dug in deeper to further eliminate or reduce plastic waste. Through a campaign called Choose2Reuse, students are called on to choose reusable plates and cutlery.
As one avenue toward this goal, the college taps into a program called Green2Go, where students get containers made from 50 percent recycled polypropylene that are sanitized once dirty and recirculated. How it works is they pay a one-time fee and get a token to be able to trade the dirty plastic container for a clean one.
Additionally, single-use to-go containers made from polyethylene terephthalate were replaced by compostable plant fiber containers from World Centric, a nonprofit working to mitigate poverty.
“The compostable containers are helping to cut cost of materials and reducing our waste footprint,” says Stelmaszyk. These fairly inexpensive alternatives to plastic can be accepted by the anaerobic digester where the college sends organic waste.
Overall, the dining hall operations realized a 41 percent reduction in single-use plastic containers from 2019 to 2020, which comprise the greatest volume of their single-use plastics.
Some of these programs are suspended through the pandemic, but now dining hall staff are revisiting the concept of reusable to-go containers, to determine their safety and feasibility. They are exploring a touch-free return system to reduce exposure risk and mitigate the need for more staff now that they are operating at a lower capacity.
So, what is the key to making these types of programs work?
“Student buy-in is essential. In fact, many of these initiatives were born from students reaching out to us who we hired to work with us," says Stelmaszyk. "Collaborating with them ensures the programs are successful in affecting change. They listen better when it comes from their peers."