The Caf has changed to compostable bags that are better for the environment. Photo by Ethan Veenker

Green bags a good start to reducing to-go meal waste

The Caf is decreasing their carbon footprint by switching to eco-friendly bags, but backpacks or totes are the best option.

At the Pat Case Dining Center (the Caf), one doesn’t always have to eat within. The option of grabbing a to-go meal is available to students, and until recently, those who went with this option were offered a plastic bag for transporting their food.

This posed obvious concerns over the University of Tulsa’s carbon footprint. I was somewhat jostled last semester when I noticed all the plastic bags in my trash. I know the blame for that falls partly on my shoulders, but as Resident Dining Manager at TU Trace Kast said, “People are creatures of habit and don’t think much about where the plastic bags come from or where they end up.” We corresponded via email over this issue.He went on, “But once they have that information they will be far more likely to be earth-friendly.”

The Caf has made some degree of effort in educating students over plastic bag usage by way of placing a few statistic-mapped signs outside the entrance to the cafeteria.
Still, I had to search for these to really see them; I only knew they were there because of my correspondence with Kast.

The Caf is making larger strides in the name of sustainability, however, as they rolled out a line of new environmentally-friendly, literally green plastic bags in early March for student use.

“We now have the biodegradable bags in stock,” Kast had to say. “We originally found a supplier that had the bio-bags at a better price, but they were constantly out of stock, and since we needed a reliable steady supply, we are now going through our normal vendor [Edward Don & Company].”

Of course, the known tradeoff with going green is the immense cost. The situation at the Caf is no different, as Kast explained.

“Cost per one thousand regular non-biodegradable bags was $26.55. We are now paying $238.31 per one thousand bags for the biodegradable bags.”

That is an 898 percent increase in price, and I’ve noted my last few times at the Caf that they seem to have run out of the bags, instead handing out generic, normal plastic bags. Kast mentioned in our correspondence that Caf staff was keeping an eye on the stock of these new bags to make sure they purchased only what they needed, “as it doesn’t make good financial sense to have so much money tied up in inventory sitting on the shelf.” He predicted they would put in a new order “every week or two,” but judging on how their supplies seem to be already, these orders could possibly become more frequent.

In any case, Kast assured me that TU students wouldn’t be expected to cover the difference via their room and board payments. These new plastic bags, while a certainly welcome step in the right direction, are an expense I find may be completely avoidable, or at the very least diminished.

TU and Sodexo recently introduced the “Simply to Go” program, in which students could pay a one-time fee for a green plastic box with which to carry food from inside the cafeteria back to their living space, or wherever they desire. This program is popular, Kast told me, with already 85 students utilizing it.

Seeing this new development, I wondered why a similar program could not be put in place for the to-go meals kept outside the cafeteria. Why not, say, offer a one-time payment for a tote bag with TU/Sodexo branding on it? This tote could be used over and over again to grab to-go meals from the Caf, meaning a greater immediate expense for the student but a lesser carbon footprint over time.

Kast had no qualms with my idea, saying, “I do see more people going the reusable tote route in general than in the past, based on my observations at grocery stores and other places where plastic bags are traditionally used … It could have a variety of uses, not just to carry food. I know there are a million different totes already out there from various places, but perhaps the student association could offer a TU-themed one as a giveaway, like they do with T-shirts or blankets at special events. The book store may already offer something like that, or might look into starting to sell them too if they don’t already.”

Kast said the Caf goes through “approximately 75 to 100 bags a day.” At this rate, an order of a thousand bags would deplete within a week-and-a-half, meaning a $238.31 purchase about bi-weekly. By the end of a semester, this would total to somewhere around $1900.

Assuming the 100-students-a-day are repeat consumers, the Caf could make a small one-time purchase of totes at the beginning of each semester. A purchase of 150 custom totes from comes to somewhere under $1400.

Of course, the assumption I made is a large one. There could be someone who gets a bag at the Caf four times a week and someone who gets a bag only once. This would come to five bags between them at the end of the week, suggesting a single person at a rate of one-bag-a-day, when in fact there are two people in the equation. In such a case, a tote would be more expensive, as the Caf would need to buy two totes instead of one. There is no good way of telling just how many cases like this exist, so my calculations remain based on conjecture.

Still, I stand by my case and my suggestion, as I think totes would eventually prove to be more economical, and in any case are a better aesthetic direction.

There is an even simpler way the Caf could decrease both expenses and carbon footprint, however, and that’s through the simple suggestion for students to use their own backpack. As Kast said, hungry college students are creatures of habit. I appreciate the educational signage put in place, but I think a single sign encouraging students to use their backpacks to carry food could work better than showing them statistics over plastic bags.

Kast agreed with this idea in our correspondence, saying, “I think it is an excellent idea to encourage the use of backpacks and reusable/washable totes instead of disposable bags.” As of March 12, the Caf has a sign encouraging such use.

Cutting out plastic bags completely and requiring students to supply their own bags or to use their backpacks would be the most economic decision, if not slightly inconvenient. Still, given the Caf’s presence on campus, it’s not exactly a choice that would drive business away. Due warning of the upcoming changes would be needed, but
I believe adaptation would happen quickly. Dining staff could also opt to not provide bags to students unless specifically asked, as I usually find myself putting my food in my backpack and then having to awkwardly decline a plastic bag.

“The dining department has always welcomed ideas from the student body,” Kast said at the end of our correspondence, “and I think sustainability is at the top of most people’s lists when it comes to helping our planet not only today, but for future generations.” It would seem from the Caf’s decision to switch to biodegradable bags, despite aggressive expense increases, that they do harbor some concern over the University’s carbon footprint.

As I said, the biodegradable bags seem to be a step in the right direction. I think, however, that reusable totes could be an even better step. Or, most simply, remove the foot entirely and just use backpacks.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker