New sustainable options are expensive, impractical

St. Thomas Dining Services has tried to take several steps forward in maintaining a more sustainable campus.

These steps seem to be logical: make the dining services on our campus more sustainable and better for the environment. However, some of these new programs are expensive, impractical and inconvenient.

In a TommieMedia story published in October, Gayle Lamb, cash operations manager for dining services, explained two new programs the university has started. The first involves buying a $3 Tommie mug to receive $1 refills. The second involves spending $5 for a to-go token, which can be exchanged for to-go containers. Scooter’s and The Grill on campus have also tried to do away with Styrofoam plates and replace them with ceramic plates.

Money matters

First, the Tommie mugs. This program has had some success here on campus, selling especially well in The Grill. You spend $3 on a 16-oz. Tommie mug, and you are able to refill it in the future for only a dollar.

This doesn’t seem that bad, until you consider that the fountain drinks on campus regularly cost between $1.10 and $1.25. The most expensive drink you can get a refill for is a large cappuccino, regularly $1.85. So by spending $3 on a mug, you only save, at most, 85 cents per use. Unless you frequently get coffee drinks or soft drinks at the various eateries on campus, it is not a good deal. The university purchases the cups at about $2.19 per cup, according to Lamb, so the university isn’t making much money on these mugs either.

The Styrofoam cups formerly found at The Grill and Scooter’s have been replaced by plant-based cups, which cost roughly six cents more per cup than their Styrofoam counterparts. These cups are compostable, which means they will biodegrade only if discarded in a compost bin. However, there are no such bins in the dining areas on campus. So these green cups are being thrown in the trash with all of the other waste a customer generates. Since the cups are not disposed of properly, they are not creating a greener environment any more than the previous Styrofoam cups were. Considering these plant-based cups cost more, the university should make sure it has a proper disposal area for these cups.

To-go troubles

The to-go container program seems like it would also be a good way to go green.

Students enter the program by spending $5 on a token. These tokens can be traded in at The Grill or Scooter’s for a solid, reusable plastic to-go container for food. When students are finished with the to-go container, they can return it to an eatery and get their token back. The used to-go containers are then washed and reused. Once in the program, students can turn in their tokens as many times as they wish.

By using these to-go containers, St. Thomas can save money from the cardboard to-go containers used at Scooter’s and the previously used Styrofoam to-go containers at The Grill. The Grill has gotten rid of its Styrofoam to-go containers, which has reduced the amount of waste. But The Grill still uses paper boats for to-go meals, which are not as environmentally friendly as the new to-go containers.

This new program is supposed to supplant these less-sustainable options, but by observing the eateries here on campus, you would not even know such a program existed. The managers at Scooter’s and The Grill can count the number of tokens they have sold on one hand.

Dish replacement problems

The dish replacement at Scooter’s and The Grill also causes problems of its own, including implementing the program in some eateries. The dishwasher in Murray-Herrick is located in The Grill, so it is less convenient for Scooter’s to clean these real dishes.

With The Grill and Scooter’s moving into the new student center next year, these may be only temporary problems. But another problem with this dish replacement is that it really isn’t that green of a program. Yes, less waste is produced and we can reuse the real plates. However, the eateries must wash all of these extra dishes now, which uses up a lot of water and other resources.

St. Thomas has tried to make changes to promote a greener and more sustainable food service program on campus. But students are not reaping the benefits of these programs, and in some cases don’t even know about them. These new programs are expensive, impractical and inconvenient, and the St. Thomas should consider making adjustments to these programs in the future.

Dan Cook can reached at

3 Replies to “New sustainable options are expensive, impractical”

  1. I agree with Katie; it seems to me than an incoming freshman opting for the mug program would (at the very worst) only have to refill 30 times over their four year career (less than once a month) to break even. If that student enjoys cappuccino, they would profit from the program on their fourth refill.

    The problem with the compostable cups seems like a relatively easy issue to resolve. Put a bin out! If someone who works in the greenhouse or community garden were to take ownership, further savings on fertilizer or soil (beyond the reduction in disposal costs) would be realized.

  2. The math holds up for small drinks. I lunch at the Grill every single weekday, and every day I order a small fountain drink. Small fountain drinks cost $1. Under the mug program, after my initial $3 investment and my efforts to remember to bring the mug every day, my per-day cost would drop to… $1. It’s more soda, but I don’t *want* more soda. If these mugs were even slightly to my financial benefit (say, $0.95 refills, which works out to a total savings for me of $1 over the course of the semester, or $0.75 refills, which would net me $17 per semester), I would do it.

    Like all things green, widespread adoption depends on incentives.

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