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WVU Dining Services piloting reusable to-go container program

Story by Harrison Dover, WVU Dining Services Communications Intern

Looking to help protect the earth a little more today? Good thing you’re a Mountaineer! Mountaineers have to do their part too, and every little bit counts. WVU Dining Services is taking a little bit of a different approach this semester, addressing the disposable container issue the University faces at dining locations.

In light of similar efforts at schools across the country, and in tandem with the assistance of the Office of Sustainability, WVU Dining Services is in the midst of a pilot that is testing a new, reusable to-go container program at WVU dining halls that would reduce the amount of waste contributed to the environment.

The pilot involves 31 students in a living learning community focused on sustainability currently testing reusable to-go containers at Café Evansdale this semester. The intention of the pilot is to make sure it is a sound alternative to-go option for students as well as the WVU Dining staff.

A Dining Services employee serves food in a to-go container
A diner uses a reusable to-go container, which is currently being tested for use at Café Evansdale. Photo by Harrison Dover

The sectioned polypropylene containers are microwave-friendly, allowing for a convenient option for students who wish to take part in the program in the future. Those in the pilot this semester start with their first reusable box, recording their name with the dining hall. Upon arrival the next day with a dirty container, students place it on the dish return conveyor so that each one is washed for later use. From there, it is put back in circulation so that a clean one is available after every meal for students if they plan to eat to-go that day. If students are eating at the dining hall that day, they are requested to use the regular service ware rather than a to-go container.

“Obviously, the pandemic has created a huge increase in demand for to-go meals, because we’re not able to gather normally in the dining hall,” Traci Knabenshue, WVU’s sustainability director, said. “This was already in the works but it is definitely timely.”

Knabenshue was quick to comment on the adverse effects single-use containers have on our environment.

“While we do recycle plastic on campus, the food and liquid associated with plastic to-go boxes can contaminate our recycling stream,” she said.

Using less in the first place is always our first goal, and the uptick in the number of to-go meals due to COVID has shown us just how impactful reusables can be in combating the global challenge of plastic pollution. Traci Knabenshue

Lynne Thomas, a sophomore at WVU and one of the members of the pilot program, said she and her roommate jumped at the opportunity when they were offered a chance to make an impact this semester, all while reducing the amount of trash in their home.

“One of the things that me and my roommate really like about it is that we don't have to take out our trash in our room as much because it just makes it more efficient for us to come to the dining hall and to replace our containers,” Thomas said.

After a survey offered by the Office of Sustainability to those using the program, out of 11 respondents, five responded that they are using the boxes regularly and are enjoying the program.

David Price, residential dining manager at Café Evansdale, said that from a logistics standpoint, much of what needs to be done to implement this program is already in place and ready to go.

A to-go container is filled with noodles, chicken and sautéed vegetables
A diner shows off a full tray of food in one of WVU Dining’s reusable to-go containers, which will be available for use campus-wide starting in the fall semester. Photo by Harrison Dover

“We’re already prepared and ready to wash these, and in terms of logistics, I don’t see this being too much of a hang up,” Price said. “It’s possible on the Dining Services side to make it effective, and while not every student may be great at keeping track of their [containers], we have the ability on our end to make this work.”

Some students may dislike the program, since it isn’t conducive to everyone’s lifestyle to carry a dirty container with them back to the dining hall. In the aforementioned survey, two of the 11 respondents said disposables were more convenient for them. Despite that, WVU Dining Services hopes this program is used by many students in the future.

WVU Dining Services intends to implement these reusable containers at all dining halls beginning in the Fall 2021 semester. Students will have the option to opt-in, but are not required to participate.

Ultimately, this program has the potential to reduce the negative impact on the environment and hopefully add to the improved sustainability in West Virginia.