Towards sustainability, one less tray at a time

By Amy Ledig

Students lined up patiently by the conveyer belt window, waiting to scrape their plates and hand over their dishes. No, it was not one of those days when the tray conveyer is broken or horribly backed up. On Wednesday and Thursday, a group of students, led by Macalester College Student Government and an Environmental Studies class, gave Macalester a wake up call about the amount of waste they produce at each meal.The waste awareness campaign, launched by the MCSG Presidential Commission in coordination with the “Conservation Psychology” class, is intended to make students and staff realize how much food they waste. The two groups teamed up when each realized that the other was working on the same project.

Tables staffed by student volunteers drawn from the class and MCSG were set up in front of the conveyer belt that usually whisk trays – along with the several hundred pounds of food wasted each day – to the kitchen to be washed. Guided by the volunteers, Café Mac diners scraped their leftovers into the bins and buckets at the table and then gave the volunteers their dishes. Whole pieces of food that would otherwise be tossed out were put on display, while individuals who left their plates spotless were greeted with cheers and rings of a cowbell.

Terence Steinberg ’11, a freshman MCSG representative and one of the lead organizers, said that 900 people went through Café Mac for lunch on Wednesday, and that the process had gone relatively smoothly.

“I don’t think people were waiting in queue for more than like 15 seconds,” he said. “For a first try, it went pretty smoothly. We tried to make people aware that this was happening before today.”

Steinberg said that there were 160.5 pounds of waste from Wednesday’s lunch, including the weight of the buckets, which Café Mac Board Manager Theresa Cianni said was less than usual.

“I think people were very conscious because they know it’s going on,” Cianni said.

Laina Copley ’10, an organizer from Conservation Psychology, was a little taken aback by the amount of the amount of waste that was still generated. She said that on average, there are 200 pounds of waste generated, which made Wednesday’s performance somewhat odd.

“I wasn’t really expecting that it would be quite so much. We had whole plates of food coming back,” she said.

Zoe Campbell ’09, another of the organizers from the Conservation Psychology class, said that student response had been mixed, ranging from annoyed to pleased about the reminder to think before foraging.

“I’ve heard some from both sides. There were people who said I just want to eat my lunch. [and thought] it could be a little pushy,” she said, adding that others were more supportive. “Some people said, ‘Sometimes I get busy and take too much food.'”

“Most people were pretty welcoming to the idea,” said Steinberg, who spent lunch manning the table. “Some people, I’d say ‘Can you scrape your plate into the bucket?’ and they’d say ‘no’ and walk away.”

On Thursday, the plan was to have trays conspicuously absent, forcing people to think about ho–w much food they collect during meals, Steinberg said. The tray idea was initiated by Café Mac’s Lori Hartzell, who worked closely with the students organizing this week’s events. Steinberg said that schools across the country are more and more frequently moving away from using trays, even if only once in a while. Theresa Cianni, Café Mac’s board manager, said that a similar move is currently under consideration for Macalester.

The event is only one of two environmentally-focused initiatives in Café Mac this month. On Tuesday, Bon Appétit will roll out its Low Carbon Diet day. Executive Chef Andrew Lehrke explained that the event will lower the amount of carbon burned in transportation of food to campus, especially seafood and produce. Beef and cheese will also be absent from the menu, with no burgers available at lunch on the grill line in Café Mac or for purchase. The day will also feature cheese-less pizza, and cheese will be missing from the salad bar and grill fixings station.

“We have some local meats coming, local pork and local chicken,” Lehrke said.

There are also other efforts underway to make Café Mac more sustainable. Cianni said that Bon Appétit is working to reduce the amount of coffee used by 10 percent, so that there is not as much coffee tossed out at the end of each day. There is also a company-wide commitment to serving only beverages bottled in the United States, something that Café Mac has been doing.

“We were actually doing a good job with that before,” Lehrke said.

“There are a lot of little things that you don’t notice but we’re doing,” Cianni said, adding that Bon Appétit has been using compostable cups, handing out napkins instead of having them openly available and offering a “for here” option in addition to the usual to-go plastic containers at the Grill.

Even for the organizers, food management is an issue. Despite spending weeks working on the project, Copley said, “I still notice myself wasting food – it’s a habit.”

“Most people were pretty chill about it because it’s a two-day thing,” Steinberg said. “If it was everyday, they’d hate it.