Sabol ’18 drives campaign for reusable to-go containers

by Paulomi Rao | 9/12/16 11:49pm

After spearheading a pilot program in the Class of 1953 Commons, Madison Sabol ’18 is hoping to bring reusable to-go containers to the College.

Inspired by Lauren Singer’s “Trash is for Tossers” blog and the idea of a “zero-waste” lifestyle, Sabol began reconsidering single-use plastic to-go containers in dining halls during her sophomore fall.

“The idea of complete no-waste, not even having to recycle, was incredible”, Sabol said, adding that she wanted to expand what sustainability looks like on campus. “I was looking to go further than just the reusable mug. It is time to rethink sustainability.”

To fund the pilot program, Sabol applied for a $500 grant from the Dartmouth Outing Club’s Environmental Studies Division. Each term, the division awards grants to support student projects that boost the College’s sustainability efforts.

As part of the award, Sabol held frequent feedback sessions with sustainability office intern Fabian Stocek ’17 to manage funding and program planning. She began by conducting research with Environmental Conservation Organization students to investigate why students use to-go containers in the first place. Sabol said she used a previous reusable container initiative from 2012 called Green To-Go containers as a starting point.

Sabol said that earlier initiatives looking into the same question found that students were using to-go containers to avoid eating alone. This finding resulted in a clear cup/red cup program that designated red cups as “social cups” to mark students who were willing to dine with new peers. While this initiative worked to reduce the use of to-go containers by making dining more community-oriented, Sabol said her more recent research found that the primary reason students use to-go containers is their convenience.

Over a period of two weeks in July, students getting meals to-go volunteered to use reusable containers, which are identical in shape to the current disposable options. The reusable containers used in the pilot were the same models used at nearby universities, said Jennifer Nakhla, night manager of Dartmouth Dining Services. The student volunteers were then asked to provide feedback on their experience.

Some remaining challenges include figuring out the return and reuse protocols for the containers. Sabol said that she envisions the boxes having bar codes similar to library books to allow them to be checked out and returned for cleaning in a timely manner. Health concerns can arise if a student keeps a container for long without cleaning.

Sabol said she hopes a full program for all students can be ready for the winter or spring terms.

Sabol’s research also found that many students did not know that the current plastic to-go containers are recyclable.

Adopting a reusable to-go container would save DDS $20,000 annually, she said. Sabol noted that these savings could allow more local food options to be offered, and potentially reduce meal plan prices for students in the long term.

To continue improving the reusable container program, Sabol wants to work with Thayer School of Engineering students and other peer institutions. DDS employees have reported trouble with finding enough space to air dry the containers — Sabol has turned her eye to designing a new drying rack system with the help of Thayer students.

Similar initiatives are taking place at Tulane University, Middlebury College and Columbia University. While the program at Columbia uses tokens to have students “pay” for their containers, Sabol wants the College’s program to use student IDs as the checkout mechanism for convenience.

Nakhla said that DDS is very excited about the program as it dramatically reduces waste at the College.

Julia Granito ’18, who observed the pilot program in action, recalled how eager people were to try the new reusable to-go containers.

“Everyone who saw my friends and I eating out of the containers kept wondering if they could use one,” said Granito. “Generally, people were really excited about the idea.”

Sabol highlighted advice received from sustainability program manager Jenna Musco.

“She told me to hold up, take 20 steps back, and understand the real needs of the problem,” Sabol said.

Correction appended (Sept. 19, 2016): The original version of this piece incorrectly listed Julia Granito ’18 as a pilot participant. She was friends with pilot participants, but not involved herself in the program. The article has been updated to reflect this change.