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January 25, 2011

The University of Vermont’s Eco-Ware program, a new initiative that aims to take a bite out of the environmental impact of take-out dining at UVM, officially began with the start of the Spring 2011 semester.

When students returned to campus for Spring semester they were able to join the Eco-Ware program by purchasing a container from the University Marché or Brennan’s, the two participating Eco-Ware dining locations at UVM. After buying their container for $7.50, participants can then return their used container to exchange for a clean one that their next to-go meal will be served in. The container itself is made of sturdy polypropelene that is 100% BPA free, microwave and dishwasher safe, and can be used again and again.

While many of UVM’s dining halls already use recyclable or compostable take-out containers, the packaging must still be removed from campus as either trash, recycling or compost. Eco-Ware seeks to change that. “University Dining Services has stepped up to the plate with the Eco-Ware program and is leading by example with practical sustainability efforts,” says Erica Spiegel, manager of Solid Waste and Recycling at UVM. “This program is a great mechanism to challenge students to live the ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’ philosophy of waste management.”

“Since we save the cost of the compostable plate or to-go box that we would otherwise be using, we pass that savings on to customers who use Eco-Ware,” says the University Marché’s manager Gina Caglione of the five cent discount offered for every Eco-Ware meal. “Once customers buy into the program for $7.50 they can use it again and again.”

Citing growing awareness about the environmental impact of take-out dining as the primary motivation for pursuing Eco-Ware, University Dining Services marketing assistant and recent UVM graduate Jay Taylor explained the potential benefits of the program. “If a customer eats just 1 take-out meal per weekday all academic year long and uses Eco-Ware every time, they’ll save as many as 170 disposable plates and easily pay off the cost of the container.” Plus, as Taylor points out, some students eat most of their meals on the go. “Many students feel they don’t have the time to sit down and eat and consider take-out dining to be a necessity.”

“Fortunately there are other schools in the Sodexo network that have similar programs,” Taylor said, speaking specifically about Southern New Hampshire University which, like UVM, has foodservice provided by Sodexo Campus Services. “Not only did they help us find the best container, we based our exchange system on theirs and combined the information they gave us with what we learned during our pilot programs to develop a strong model for Eco-Ware.”

Why $7.50? “We knew that the program would have the greatest chance for success if it was financially self-sufficient,” Tom Oliver says. Oliver, retail operations director for UDS, led the push that began in 2009 to develop the Eco-Ware program. “$7.50 covers the cost of your container, the clean container we have waiting for your next meal, the cow tags used for the container exchange and some of the increased dishwashing costs.”

After conducting a reusable take-out container pilot in the University Marché in 2009, Oliver recruited several students from UVM’s Honors College to help bring the program to the next level with the help of Walter Poleman, director of UVM’s GreenHouse Residential Learning Community. “This project was service-learning at its best,” Poleman says. “Honors College sophomores identified a problem in our campus food system and then worked collaboratively with GreenHouse students and Sodexo to implement a creative solution.”

“I am proud to be a part of an initiative that further proves UVM’s commitment to being environmentally friendly,” says Suven Cooper, a student in the Honors College and one of the four students who helped Eco-Ware through the 2nd and 3rd pilot programs and into the active program in use today.

Using what was learned during the three pilot programs, the Eco-Ware team addressed a number of issues. First was the container, which some students complained was too flimsy and seemed like it was "tough to get clean." Next was accountability, as only 35 percent of the containers in the Fall 2010 pilot program were returned by the end of the pilot. This was addressed by incorporating Southern New Hampshire University’s exchange system, where customers receive a token when they return a container that they can use to claim their clean one later, but with a Vermont-twist, as the token used at UVM is a custom made cow tag, the same kind used by dairy farmers throughout the state. Lastly was the issue of participation. “We wanted to expand Eco-Ware beyond the University Marché to serve more of our off-campus and staff customers,” Oliver said of the decision to bring Eco-Ware to Brennan’s. Brennan’s, an on-campus restaurant dedicated to local food systems, uses products like Vermont Smoke and Cure Bacon, Misty Knoll Chicken, Rookie’s Root Beer, and Vermont Cookie Love cookies. According to Bijan Samini, Manager of Brennan’s, it seemed like a “natural fit for a program that aims to reduce our impact on the local environment.” The five cent discount was also added as an incentive to boost participation and reward those who take part in reducing the environmental impact of take-out dining at UVM.

Eco-Ware is a reusable take-out container program created and administered by University Dining Services at the University of Vermont, as managed by Sodexo Campus Services.

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