Going green: UNC’s dining services change to-go box policy

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In the event a student forgets to bring a green to-go box to the dining hall, he or she recieves a blue Dining Services keychain. Photo by Wilhelmina Jackson.

University of Northern Colorado students came back to school and encountered a change in their dining option this year: giant green to-go boxes.

Replacing the usual white, compostable to-go boxes, this new dining program was introduced last fall on a trial basis to see how students would like them. Now, the green recyclable boxes have a permanent home in the dining halls, under one condition: students must pay $5 for their own box. This permanent plan was first discussed last spring and during the summer

Announcements about the new program were made at UNC’s new student orientations to let incoming students know about the plan. Another announcement, via a sales sign, was made on on Aug. 16, the first day fall meal plans went in effect.

Matthew Doyle, the assistant director of board operations and registered dietitian, has been part of the UNC team for six years. He worked with the Director of Dining Services Hal Brown; the previous associate director of dining, Robin Wainscott; and the Student Leadership for Environmental Action Fund to put the program together. Student LEAF is a organization on campus striving to make UNC more sustainable and green.

“One of the things we were looking at was replacing the compostable boxes, because we know they just go in the garbage, and they’re not composting,” Doyle said.

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Dining Services also got rid of the white boxes to avoid difficulty in keeping track of the white and green box inventories. Doyle enacted a similar program when he worked at St. Norbert  College in Wisconsin. According to Doyle, the goal for UNC was to create less waste by getting rid of the white boxes, and having students buy the green ones. In reducing waste, he said students would be motivated to keep the new boxes since they paid for it.

Students can pay for boxes in two ways: either with dining dollars or a credit card. The system is the same as last year, in which students take a green box and bring it in and exchange it for a new one when they’re done. This program is available at both dining halls on campus.

If a student forgets his or her box, he or she can receive a carabiner, a keychain clip from the dining halls. This system is so students don’t have to carry their boxes everywhere. Students can get a carabiner at either Holmes Hall or Tobey-Kendel Hall in exchange for a box, or for $5.

However, if a student doesn’t have a carabiner or a box, he or she will have to either eat in or buy another box.

“The box is designed as a one-time purchase,” Doyle said.

Students can even keep their boxes all the way through the end of the academic year, and bring them back next year. If students bring them back, they won’t have to pay again.

The cleaning process for these new to-go boxes are extensive and specific. The journey starts from a large black bin behind the counter. When it is full of used boxes, it is taken behind the scenes to where the normal dishes are washed. The washing machine is a long assembly line that takes up nearly half the kitchen. Placed with the other dishes, the boxes are first covered in a special soap called Respond Solid. This soap helps break up food particles on the dishes.

Next, the dishes go through the rinsing processes and then through the heat sanitation. Heat sanitation is vital to the cleaning process because it eliminates any remaining bacteria or pathogens on the dishes. Health code requires that dishes are heated up to 160 degrees, in order for it to be safe to use for food; the water in this cycle is heated up to 180 degrees to ensure dishes are cleaned properly.

After that, the dishes go through the blower where dishes are dried. However, sometimes the washer doesn’t clean the dishes completely, so they are washed separately through a quick wash, rinse and sanitation process. The cleaner used for sanitation is standard disinfectant sanitizer that’s normally used in the food industry.

Student Personnel Supervisor Chris Bowen has been a manager with UNC dining for seven years. He wants students to understand how highly the university’s dining services regard food safety.

“We take food safety really, really seriously. So if anybody ever thinks they got sick here, we are going to make sure that if we were the ones who got them sick, we would handle it,” Bowen said.

The dining halls have also gotten rid of plastic straws. This was done in a joint effort to be green. Recently, there has been a anti-straw movement where the goal is to get rid of straws completely. This is because so much plastic gets into the ocean, which kills the animals and eventually gets into our food. Because of this, businesses like Starbucks and cities across the country, including Seattle, are starting to ban plastic straws.

Select locations on campus, such as the Coffee Corners, Subway, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Bears Bistro still have straws, but Doyle said the dining services are currently looking for programs to replace those straws. When looking for new programs, UNC’s dining keeps everything in mind, including affordability for students.

Some UNC students have mixed feelings about the new to-go box program.

Kendra Myers, a UNC freshman majoring in art and design, thinks the boxes are convenient for students who don’t have time to eat in the dining halls. She also said the $5 fee is necessary to maintain them.

“I think paying the five dollars makes sense because they [the dining halls] have to pay for the boxes,” Myers said.

However, UNC sophomore Alexis McCowan, a pre-law major, sees this system as problematic. Even though she says the green boxes are better for sustainability, McCowan said she doesn’t see the program as completely accessible.

“I feel as though the dynamic switches so much when you have physical cash that you have to hand over to someone, [in order] to eat,” McCowan said. “I feel like it definitely makes the university feel less like a institution of learning and more like a business, and I understand what that is, but I don’t need to be reminded of it when I’m trying to take my food home.”

Doyle insists that the money for the boxes goes strictly to the budget to buy more green boxes. It’s a cycle: someone buys a box and the money for that goes to pay for a new one.

“We’re doing this for the right reason and to help sustainability. That’s our driving force here,” Doyle said.

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