Cornell Dining claims to have a strong commitment to sustainability efforts and reducing the University’s carbon footprint. A shift away from pandemic-era disposable options is amping up goals surrounding sustainability.
Upon entering any of the West Campus dining halls, signs of Cornell’s efforts to increase sustainability are plentiful. Hungry students mill about with green reusable containers in hand, taking their food to go. Posted above the dish belts are numerous flyers reminding students to leave their unfinished food on their plates, as it will be composted later.
Still, there are certain sustainability efforts that Cornell Dining has maintained, dating back to as early as 2008, that are unbeknownst to many.
“We have several measures, both new and old, geared toward improving our sustainability so Cornell Dining can be the best possible stewards of our natural resources and of both Cornell’s, and our students’, funds,” said Anna Ben-Shlomo, the Cornell Dining sustainability coordinator.
These sustainability efforts can be grouped into the following categories: reusable materials, educational opportunities and changes to the distribution and disposal of food.
Efforts to increase the use of reusable dining materials include reusable takeout containers, an initiative launched in 2017. Last year, each student on a meal plan was given a free green reusable takeout container as well as a free set of silverware.
Cornell also recently reinstated its reusable mug program, which incentivizes students to bring a reusable mug with them to purchase drip beverages and fountain drinks in exchange for a 10 percent discount at dining locations that take Big Red Bucks. Upon purchasing a reusable mug, the first beverage is free.
Ben-Shlomo mentioned the Consumer Waste Educational Initiative, which was implemented by the University in 2016, as an opportunity to educate the University community on sustainability.
The initiative uses infographics to display concepts such as appropriate portion sizes and post-consumer waste measurement to educate Cornellians about how much edible food is wasted. Although the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced this program to be paused, it will resume this month.
Alterations made to the distribution and disposal of food range from simple changes, such as removing trays from dining halls, to complex long term processes, such as a commitment to Menus of Change, which fosters smaller portion sizes to reduce waste while also incorporating locally sourced ingredients and seasonal menus to reduce fuel consumption from food delivery.
Similar programs include Cornell Dining’s partnership with the Food Recovery Network, which began in 2014. According to Ben-Shlomo, the student-run organization recovers food from both Cornell Catering and four residential dining halls. The recovered food is then donated to local food pantries.
Ben-Shlomo noted that Cornell Dining is partnered with Farm Services to compost all pre-production kitchen food and waste. Cornell Dining is also partnered with the National Oil Recovery to convert fryer oil into biodiesel, which is a more sustainable alternative to sending the oil to a landfill.
Akanksha Srivastava ’23 is the president of the Cornell Environmental Collaborative, a student-run organization that fosters the collaboration of other environmental groups on campus to effectively promote environmental awareness to Cornell students.
Srivastava said that dining halls are one of the locations on campus where students have a large impact in terms of waste production. As a former employee in a dining hall, she has firsthand knowledge of how much food gets composted at the end of a shift.
“I think it’s a significant amount that makes a difference that’s been composted,” Srivastava said.
Srivastava worked in a dining hall during the period of the pandemic when meals were limited to takeout only and trash would accumulate very quickly.
“I think getting rid of all that trash, or not letting that trash be created in the first place is definitely making a difference,” Strivastava said.
Despite efforts to increase the use of reusable materials, it is not uncommon to enter a dining hall and see paper plates and plastic cutlery. Ben-Shlomo noted that these changes occur when there is not enough staffing to both serve food and wash dishes, although Cornell Dining tries to minimize the use of disposable products.
Both Ben-Shlomo and Srivastava agree that there are many ways Cornellians can practice sustainability while dining and beyond.
Ben-Shlomo suggested using reusable utensils for takeout meals, getting into the habit of bringing reusable mugs to cafés, and attempting to go meatless by eating some of the new plant-based dishes on campus.
“For example, Mattin’s Café has three new vegan items on their menu,” Ben-Shlomo said.
Srivastava recommended getting into the habits of recycling waste and minimizing carbon emissions by walking or biking to campus rather than driving.
“I think a lot of climate issues or just general environmental issues we have today can be solved,” Srivastava said. “It takes a lot of different kinds of factors to solve them. But I think everyone doing a little bit to reduce their water footprint and reduce their carbon footprint can go a long way in helping to mitigate the impact of those issues and helping to prevent further damage from those issues.”