Unity College Dining Services recently received recognition as changemakers in the promotion and implementation of environmental sustainability in campus dining operations by the National Association of College and University Food Services.

Topping submissions from some of the hundreds of NACUFS membership institutions across the nation, Unity College brought home the gold in “waste management” in the organization’s Sustainability Awards for minimizing waste sent to landfills and maximizing recycling efforts throughout dining services. Previous year’s gold winners in waste management include Brown, Princeton and Harvard.

Unity College took a hard look at the impacts of dining on its campus footprint by confronting the amount of waste generated from food, plates, napkins, and disposable items provided at catered events. Beginning with the return of students to campus in August 2016, college Dining Services teamed up with the Sustainability Office and local business Exeter Agri-Energy, a family-owned company that uses an anaerobic process to convert organic waste into energy that helps power a multi-generational dairy farm in central Maine, to implement a waste program diverting 100% of food service organics.

The outcomes have been phenomenal: Unity College diverted 26.6 tons of organic waste from landfills in the eight months between August 2016 and March 2017, and raised the overall campus diversion rate 10 percent almost overnight, from 37 percent to 47 percent.

“Our dining services lead by example, educating our students on how to live sustainably,” Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said. “This recognition is great validation that our dining staff don’t just prepare amazing food — they’re also great mentors.”

College dining services kicked off their efforts last summer by purchasing 100% BPI certified products that can be placed in organics collection bins, taking all of the guesswork out of recycling for customers, students and staff. The college also purchased new collection containers for events and updated bin signage to display instructional colors, messages, and images on sorting organic waste from trash. Sustainability work study students provided consistent peer education at the start of each semester, and partner organizations helped train dining staff on the new process.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be nationally recognized for our effort in dining services,” Chief Sustainability Officer Jennifer deHart said. “For Unity College Dining, supporting the college mission means sustainable stewardship of environment, ethics, and economics in every department. We walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Costs for the zero-waste initiative included purchasing the new organics bins and signage, as well as adding a ramp and lighting to an existing storage shed to serve as the school’s central collection site. The new organics recycling service entails a marginal increase over previous waste removal, and was generally offset as waste pickups decreased. A number of changes had to be made to purchasing, but eventually dining services identified products that were favorable for organic waste catering — and often even of better quality than previous items.

Dining Service’s organics initiative also inspired Unity College dining staff to reduce pre-consumer waste in the dining hall and make best use of products so less ends up in the organics bin in the first place. For example, staff will make pickles from watermelon rinds used on the breakfast bar, and small amounts of leftover fruit are added to smoothies each morning. Vegetable scraps are blended into the house made marinara sauce — dining staff even make their very own hot sauce and ketchup from vegetables that would not otherwise be usable because of their looks.

In July, an overall grand prize-winner will be chosen from the NACUFS gold recipients in the Sustainability Awards’ four categories: procurement practices, outreach and education, waste management, and energy and water conservation. Submissions were judged based on the overall triple bottom line impact of initiatives, as well as the creativity and innovation of the schools involved.

The NACUFS Sustainability Awards support the triple bottom line philosophy, a method of evaluating operational performance by measuring financial success as well as environmental sustainability and social responsibility—also known as “people, planet, profit.” Institution members span across the U.S. and Canada, including 4-year and 2-year colleges; self-operated, contract and hybrid schools; and small and large campuses.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017