As of 2011, the University of Michigan campus was generating 10,000 tons of solid waste every year –  nearly 28 tons per day. The University realizes this is a major problem and has begun taking action accordingly. President Coleman recently set an ambitious target of reducing “waste tonnage diverted to disposal facilities by 40% below 2006 levels” by 2025.

To empower students to join the University in its efforts solve sustainability problems like waste, last fall the University launched the Planet Blue Student Innovation Fund (PBSIF). PBSIF offers a total of $50,000 every year for the next three years to students with ideas for campus sustainability projects. We applied for a PBSIF grant to pilot a reusable takeout container program at the University Club (U-Club) café in the Michigan Union and, with some hard work and support from numerous stakeholders, we were fortunate to be awarded a grant.

The U-Club, located in the Michigan Union, serves dine-in or takeout food primarily to staff and faculty looking for alternatives to the Panda Express or Wendy’s offered downstairs. To-go customers at the U-Club pick up either a compostable or styrofoam clamshell container, fill it up with food from a buffet, pay for their meal, and head back to their offices. The clamshells, even the compostable versions, typically end up in the trash. We think this model is needlessly wasteful and our goal is to help the U-Club provide an alternative solution to its customers: the reusable takeout container.

With the new Reusable Takeout Container Program (RTCP), customers will have the option of picking up a reusable, recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe, BPA-free, tougher-than-nails container at the U-Club. They will pay a rental fee for the container, fill it up with food as they would normally, and take it back to their office. The next time they come back to the U-Club, they will bring their dirty container with them, drop it off with U-Club staff, then go back to the buffet, pick up a new container, and start over again. Meanwhile, the U-Club will wash the dirty container with its existing dishwashing infrastructure, put it back out near the buffet, and boom: the container that would have otherwise been thrown in the dump will be reused.

This is by no means a revolutionary idea. An estimated 200 institutions, mostly college campuses, have already done something similar. We are hopeful that as a result of this pilot, the University will see that a program like this — which, by the way, not only reduces waste but often results in cost savings for the eating establishment as well — makes sense and should be expanded elsewhere on campus.

As of now, we are working with U-Club management to hammer out the details and intend to launch the pilot in fall 2012. We will have plenty of challenges to work through, including how to convince people to bring back containers after they’ve been used.

While sifting through the operational details, we will also be analyzing the environmental benefits of such a program. We know that reuse is better than recycling and/or composting given the amount of resources required to conduct each of these processes. But by how much, and in which ways? Thanks to this grant, we will be able to use pilot data to compare and analyze the life cycle impacts of disposable/recyclable/compostable containers vs. reusable containers. This will in turn help us understand where other reuse systems might make the most sense. We’re fortunate to have not only our Erb and SNRE classmates to work with, but also the resources made available by the Center for Sustainable Systems, which has been working on these types problems for years.

Furthermore, we will be able to experiment with various financial incentives and operational models, comparing them with business as usual to inform the cost-effectiveness of this type of program. This in turn will help us answer a key question: what are the cost savings for campus dining establishments who decide to implement a reusable takeout container program?

We are grateful to the PBSIF team and University administration for awarding us this grant and making the U-Club project possible. We’re also fortunate that the U-Club team is enthusiastic about making the pilot a success, that we are able to learn from the many schools already running successful programs, and that we have so many resources available to us as MBA/MS students.

As Erb students, we are expected to come up with effective business-oriented solutions to tough environmental problems. We look forward to trying to make a small dent in the waste problem, and we welcome any feedback or ideas anyone in the community has for us along the way.