Students across campus have continuously demonstrated their passion for taking environmentally cautious strides and leading the school to do the same. Because of this, implementing a reusable takeout container program that is present at other similar institutions seemed like a natural step. Through the oversight of the Swarthmore College Office of Sustainability in the President’s Sustainable Research Fellowship, a high-impact learning and fellowship program where a cohort of students take the lead in stewarding on-campus environmental changes, the office directors gave this sustainable initiative a green light.
As of the beginning of February, the Swat2Go program was launched with 45 participants who signed up to participate in the pilot which will run for the duration of the semester. The pilot works like this: each student who is part of the pilot has a special meal plan on their one cards that indicates they’re part of the program. Our checkers swipe the one card, the student takes a container and can enjoy their meal like normal takeout. Once the student has enjoyed their meal, they can swipe to return their container whenever it is convenient to a bin provided, swipe for a new clean container, or swipe for the normal eat-in option.
This project’s overarching mission is to avoid and reduce waste through the implementation of this reusable container pilot program. People may have seen signs, Facebook posts, or gotten a glimpse of the green containers in Sharples leading up to the pilot’s launch. The most attractive feature of this program is its direct impact on our campus’s waste. On average, 150-200 compostable containers are being used daily which costs about $1,000 per week to supply. According to the waste characterization study conducted by PSRFs, Chantal Reyes ‘22, and Tyler White ‘22, these compostable containers alone represent about two percent of all waste leaving Swarthmore’s campus. That’s a lot for a single product that has a pretty simple and beneficial solution.
Most importantly, this initiative helps promote the paradigm shift that needs to happen about how we think about waste. Most ingrained in our minds and habits is reduce, reuse and recycle, but what about all the other products that don’t fall into that? This shift in thinking about waste needs to start with first avoiding single use consumption, then reduce, reuse, recycle and energy recovery and lastly, incineration. This hierarchical reimagination of how we address waste is vital in order to reduce it. The reusable takeout container program is part of this reimagination.
While we may think of compostable products as sustainable, in reality, these plant plastics still contain lots of binding chemical agents that leach into our food, so these compostable products, and the amount we use them, are not making great strides to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, our school outputs so many compostable products to the composting facility that the products need to be pre-grinded before incorporated into the compost process. This is because the plant plastic products that Swat supplies like utensils and cups take far longer to break down than other products such as napkins and plates. This is slowing down the natural decomposition of all compost material. If material is not properly composted, i.e quickly enough, then the material will start to emit methane, a greenhouse gas worse than carbon dioxide. This is what happens at landfills.
So far, the program has been embraced by students so much that the pilot expanded to include fifteen more participants. Next year, we want to see the program expanded for a much larger pool of students and continue running until we get our new dining hall. At the moment, our current dining hall’s small size and dish washing system is incompatible with a fully implemented program — campus-wide participation would overwhelm dining staff and facilities. The new dining hall will be equipped to support a full Swat2Go program for each student on campus and completely phase out the use of compostable takeout containers.