By Austin Walker
The VCU Office of Sustainability has been focusing on the Shafer Dining Court from the beginning of the VCU Goes Green Initiative, as the location is one of the biggest consumers of resources and producers of waste.
Thankfully, the management team at Shafer, alongside the Office of Sustainability, has made strides are reducing both of those aspects in an ongoing effort to remain sustainable and eco-friendly.
The dining center, while the largest creator of waste, is also a major center for recycling on campus. There are three dumpsters reserved specifically for organic waste, and one for recycling. The reason for the need for only a single recycling container is a result of the reduction of non-biodegradable plastics produced at the dining center.
The management has decided to use all reusable dining-ware, from the plates to the cups and cutlery. The only single-use things that the consumer may use, aside from the plastic cups used at the waffle machine, is the straws and the napkins. The napkins are also made from recycled paper.
While the waste has been reduced and recycling improved, there’s plenty of other aspects that go into having a truly eco-friendly campus.
One issue that’s been addressed at town hall meetings on sustainability this year is the ability for VCU to compost some of the biodegradable waste produced at all the dining center and other restaurants around campus.
Erin Stanforth, the Director of Sustainability at VCU, said “We did start composting pre-consumer waste in 2008, meaning back-of-the-house or kitchen scraps. Bread ends, egg shells, coffee grounds, those kinds of things.”
This waste, which is inevitably produced in any kitchen environment, was collected and then sold to a service called NOPE, or Natural Organic Process Enterprises. They would come to the dining center twice a week, take the waste for composting, then turn around and sell that compost.
Stanforth said “but because food services runs such a tight shift in terms of the kitchen staff back there, we tend to not generate much waste.”
Because composting operations are costly, and not commonplace in Virginia, they’re going to shift their focus to recycling. Currently, no process takes place which recycles post-consumer waste, or the waste that’s generated by those who are eating at the center. All of the recycling comes from the plastics from inside the kitchen.
That amount of waste generated by the consumer may actually surprise you. Portion sizes have been designed in a way that prevents the eyes-bigger-than-stomach effect where someone may take more food than they’re capable of eating and wasting it. The size of the plates, the lack of trays, and upper-cuts entrees are all designed to make you eat less.
Also, in an effort to further reduce that post-consumer waste through education, the VCU Dining Services holds a “Waste Week” every Fall semester. This is a week in which the Dining Services tell the consumers the actual amount of food waste that’s been produced the week before, and give out information which details the effects of their wasting.
Tamara Highsmith, the manager of Sales & Services for VCU Dining Services, said “there’s a celebration week where ARAMARK also does an in-kind donation to the food bank in the pounds saved. It ranges from 450 to 550 pounds saved just by educating students in that week.”
One other things that’s boasted by a large board as your enter the dining center is the claims that VCU sources much of its food locally. How much, though?
Highsmith said “about 28% of our food at the dining center is sourced locally. We have local breads, we have local dairy, we have local tofu, tempeh, and a significant amount of local produce.”
To be considered local, the foods must be produced and brought in from no more than 250 miles from the campus.
One problem that arises when sustainability on campus comes into question is the power which VCU has over the brands which are housed on campus. The Taco Bell, the Pizza Hut, the Panda Express, etc. all have what is known as “brand standard.”
This means that, in order for them to agree to operate on campus, they’re given almost total autonomy in their operations. The VCU Office of Sustainability has nearly zero control in their operations as they relate to emissions, waste production, and sourcing of food.
However, if we’re talking solely about the Shafer Dining Center, they have total control over operations and food production. They use this control to experiment with new green initiatives.
For example, recently they’ve put a system in place where all of the grease used in the friers is reused.
Instead of simply sending the used grease to a disposal facility, it is saved in canisters behind the dining center. Here, they’re picked up by a company which filters and cleans the grease to be used by vehicles on the university.
The groundskeeping carts which can be seen driving throughout the campus are actually partially powered by recycling oil from the Shafer Dining Court.
Shafer Dining Center, the epicenter for undergraduate dining, will continue to be a large producer of food waste and consumer of water and electricity. Continued focus on the building, implementation of new eco-friendly systems, and reduction in consumption will have to take place to keep the building from becoming a blemish on VCU’s image.