Reusable container program struggles as containers go missing


Yifan Wu

Photo by Karsten Beling ’22

Owen McDonnell and Ben Porter

Macalester’s Reusable Container Program was conceived by an idealistic team of Macalester students in the summer of 2020. Its goal was to minimize the overall waste production, lower spending on compostables and give students more dining options through an honor system. Students could borrow a complementary container, eat their meal wherever they pleased and then return it to the drop-off location in the cafeteria where it would then be cleaned and reused. 

After an overwhelmingly successful pilot program last semester, Macalester implemented an invigorated reusable container program for the 2021-2022 academic year, where a number of issues have surfaced with the honor system.

As of Oct. 6, the original 700 reusable containers purchased for use at the start of the year has dwindled down to a mere 49.

Such a system was supposedly tried and true, as Carleton College had implemented a successful reusable container program the previous fall. Their model was based on COVID-19 concerns, like social distancing, that made takeout a necessary option. The team at Macalester took notes. 

Director of Sustainability Christie Manning, who is on sabbatical this year, assisted the student-led team with the logistics for a pilot program. Their initial run used a token system and 100 reusable containers, and it proved successful: users consistently returned the containers.

After this success, the team gave up the token system in favor of an honor system. With this, the program bumped up the number of containers to 200. According to Facilities Shift Leader David Edens, waste drastically reduced. 

“[Macalester] was going through six eight-yard containers for compost collection twice a week. And during a normal year, we’re at most going through four a week,” Edens said. 

With the implementation of the reusable container pilot program, however, the numbers took a turn. A single floor of Dupre went from emptying five 33-gallon compost containers two-three times each day to only emptying 2-3 compost containers total per day.

“I went down from filling up five of the eight-yard containers every three or four days inbetween pickups, to three of the eight-yard containers instead. That saved sixteen cubic yards of waste each time,” Edens said.

There were fiscal benefits to the program, too, which the sustainability office considered a major plus. Alyssa Erding, the sustainability operations and data coordinator, spoke highly of these returns. 

“With a quarter of students on campus last year, we were spending $2,800 each week, just on compostable clamshells, or $400 a day,” Erding explained.

Not only was the compostable material expensive, but the cost of disposal services acted as an additional weight on the budget. Alternatives were very welcome.  

“[Because of the] increased frequency of needing to take out the compost, we spent $15,000 on compostable bags in 2020,” Erding said. “This doesn’t include what Bon Appétit was buying, which is at least half of that. That’s a huge expense.” 

In contrast, the program for reusable containers purchased 700 containers for $4-a-piece: the equivalent of what was spent on one week of compostables for the previous year. Outdoor dining was a more financially viable and environmentally friendly option, as well as a COVID-safe endeavor. 

Amy Damon, the acting director of sustainability and a professor of economics, said both Bon Appétit and the Sustainability Office have been frustrated by the struggles of the current program after such pilot program successes. 

“The intention was to reduce waste,” Damon said. “The intention was to allow students to have a container that they could bring back … Bon Appétit could wash it in their industrial dishwashing machines, and then it would be clean for the next person to use.” 

In response to the missing containers, the Sustainability Office has enacted a ‘container retrieval’ campaign and is currently in the process of devising solutions to this issue. 

“One of the things we tried was a table outside of Cafe Mac, to get the word out; we put bins in the dorms with information to say ‘hey, if you have some in your room, dump them in this bin, and we’re going to come get them’ and that got some back,” Damon said. “If you have a container in your room, or in your house or in your office, please bring it back.” 

Macalester and Bon Appétit agree that they won’t return to the single-use compostable model. 

“The only way to continue is with the Reusable Containers Program,” Erding said. “If we can’t bring the containers back, then we’ll lose the opportunity to take food out of the cafe.” 

This has proven to not only be an issue for students who want to take their food to go, but also a logistical nightmare for Cafe Mac: COVID-19 concerns still linger throughout the school. 

“[This] is a huge issue right now because we don’t have the space for everyone to eat at Cafe Mac, even if we didn’t have to physically distance because of COVID,” Erding said. 

Other issues arise for the small percentage of students awaiting COVID-19 tests and self-isolating due to close contact with a COVID-19 case. The Minnesota Department of Health guidelines mandate quarantining and minimal contact if a person falls into either category. 

“[If] there are no reusable containers, they don’t get to do that — then they are forced to find food elsewhere or they are forced to eat at Cafe Mac and go against Department of Health guidelines,” Erding said. “So we need the containers back for a ton of reasons.”

The Macalester administration refuses to purchase more containers unless 50% or more of the original 700 are returned on a consistent basis. 

“If we see 50% of what we purchased consistently returned, then we’ll buy more,” Erding said.  “But until then, we’re not throwing any more money away.” 

Starting in the subsequent weeks, the Sustainability Office will begin to randomly divvy out drink tickets for The Grille as an incentive for reusable containers to be returned. Containers can be returned regardless of their condition, as broken ones are fully insured by their producer, Ozzi Containers. 

“I don’t like the other options. I like the honor system option,” Edens said. “I would rather see that function, because we are Macalester, and we are different. We do things that people don’t think are possible.”