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EcoClamshell To-Go Containers at Eckerd College are First in Florida to Go Green

posted on 04/04/2008

Each year, college students use millions of plastic and polystyrene (Styrofoam) hinged-lid containers that end up in public landfills. Is this waste unavoidable? Eckerd has the solution. In the spirit of its ongoing sustainable initiatives, Eckerd is now providing its students with an innovative, sustainable option for cafeteria take-out - the 'EcoClamshell.' Made from a durable, dishwasher-safe plastic material, this teal-colored reusable take-out container is the first of its kind to be used at any college or university in the state of Florida.

"Our society values convenience," says Audrey Copeland, a 2007 Eckerd graduate and current environmental service learning intern who developed the EcoClamshell. "In a college cafeteria, convenience is translated to disposable takeout containers. The outcome? Tons of unnecessary landfill waste. Eckerd's EcoClamshell offers a recycling system that is cost-efficient, sanitary, environmentally friendly andů convenient."

In the summer of 2007, Eckerd College received a $32,000 grant from the Environmental Research and Education Foundation to develop an innovative reusable to-go system. The EcoClamshells were manufactured by Texas-based G.E.T. Enterprises. Miss Copeland has worked closely with Eckerd's Sustainable Campus Task Force and Eckerd's food services vendor, Bon Appetit, to test, measure, experiment, and test again.

EcoClamshell: How It Works
Eckerd students can sign up for an EcoClamshell in the cafeteria during any meal. The student's account is charged five dollars, covering the student's four years at Eckerd, unless the container is lost or destroyed. The student checks out an EcoClamshell, fills it with food and exits the cafeteria. Upon returning to the cafeteria, the student checks the container back in and places it on the dishwasher conveyor, where it is sanitized and put out for reuse. This creates a closed loop system where the container circulates for years before being retired to a recycling center.

Eckerd's residential student population is 1,800. During its first two weeks, nearly 200 students signed up for an EcoClamshell. Eckerd hopes to reach 100% participation by those signed up for the College's meal plan (1,000 students).

EcoClamshell: Why It's a Better Option
A common strategy to avoid to-go waste is to offer reusable containers for sale in the campus bookstore. In this model, students own and are responsible for their container. The major drawback here - a serious one - is sanitation and maintaining health code standards. Bon Appetit's policy prohibits the use of personal reusable containers in order to ensure containers are properly sanitized and the possibility of food poisoning is minimized.

Another idea often presented is the use of biodegradable containers. These containers can be a more sustainable option but only under perfect conditions, i.e., the containers are properly composted. In the St. Petersburg, Florida area, that majority of waste is incinerated and such containers would be burned. Even in a land fill setting, these containers do not biodegrade any better than an apple core because they become trapped in an anaerobic environment and oxygen is a central part of the decomposition process.

The reusable nature system of the EcoClamshell precludes all of these problems: students are financially responsible for their container, should they lose it; the containers are put through an industrial dishwasher after each use, thereby insuring proper sanitation; and, it is a more sustainable option then their biodegradable counterpart.

EcoClamshell: The Tipping Point
"Eckerd is the perfect place to design, implement and begin the national distribution at other colleges of the first ever reusable to-go system," says Dawyn Patterson, Bon Appetit Board Manager.

One of the greatest benefits of the EcoClamshell is the ability to quickly bring this concept to other higher learning institutions across Florida and the United States. Bon Appetit currently has 400 accounts in the United States, many of which are small colleges. If this program is successful, Bon Appetit will begin working it into the framework of the other colleges and institutions it serves.

Through presentations made at national conferences, Eckerd hopes that the EcoClamshell will be the "tipping point" for other low-cost, easily implemented, student-initiated ideas for campus-based waste minimization practices. Says Miss Copeland, "This system will help to promote a more personal and successful relationship with disposable items among young people that can be maintained after their graduation."

Sustainability at Eckerd College
Eckerd's list of sustainable efforts is extensive: the Yellow Community Bike program designed four years ago to increase bicycle use on campus and decrease automobile traffic; Eckerd president Donald Eastman's signing of the College and University Presidents Climate Commitment that addresses climate change; the hands-on, student-run recycling program; the Visions of Nature / Voices of Nature Environmental Film Festival, held each spring ten years running; Iota Complex, a residence hall for which Eckerd is seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification; facilities vendor UNICCO's GreenClean green products approach; Bon Appetit's Circle of Responsibility and Eat Local Challenge programs that aptly match Eckerd's environmental ambitions; and the popular Environmental Studies major that consistently graduates enough students to qualify as one of the College's top three majors.

Photos by Eric Fortman '08

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