Two Minnetonka middle schools, in coordination with TonkaGreen (the parent volunteer organization), received a grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) Environmental Assistance Grant Program to switch from disposable to reusable food ware and improve their cafeteria waste sorting stations. The purpose of the project was to address the most significant source of non-recyclable, noncompostable waste from the school cafeterias: disposable plastic flatware and Styrofoam bowls. The schools used the grant funds to purchase washable durable utensils and bowls, custom-made waste sorting stations, and a few needed racks and carts to store, move, and wash the reusable food ware. In addition, the project included educating over 2,000 students, staff, and visitors about the benefits of eliminating the disposables and how to properly sort everything from the trays after lunch. The project team analyzed the waste diversion benefits and, with help from MPCA staff, the overall lifecycle environmental footprint change from the source reduction of the disposable items – including carbon emissions, water consumption, and air emissions.
In the first year, the schools saved approximately $3,000 combined by buying the reusable utensils and bowls. The annual per student costs for food-ware dropped from $6.89 to $4.83.
Environmental impacts included prevention of about 6,000 lb of on-site solid waste in the first year. Instead of buying 700,000 plastic utensils, the school purchased just 12,000 metal reusable utensils. In addition, in the first year of use, the change to reusable utensils and bowls are estimated to result in a 44% reduction in life cycle greenhouse gasses and similar reductions in water withdrawals and air pollution emissions versus the disposables. Taken alone, the metal utensils resulted in a 77% reduction in greenhouse gases and water consumption over disposable plastic utensils.
The benefits of reusables increase the longer they are in use. Over three years of use, the schools could anticipate saving an estimated $23,000. Environmental benefits accrue as well. Over three years of use, the reusable utensils (not the bowls) would result in an estimated life-cycle reduction of 88% of greenhouse gasses, air pollutants and water consumption over the disposables. On-site impacts to water and electricity use were found to be negligible and did not change the net overall magnitude of the lifecycle benefits of the reusables. Changes to staff routines were easily accommodated. Several tips for implementing use of reusables in schools were developed.
This case study shows that a return to reusable utensils in schools can be good for the bottom line and the environment. Moreover, the case study shows that common concerns about reusables – that on-site water and electricity use will undercut environmental benefits – are unfounded.