Reusable containers a hit with students and the environment

A student holds open the lid of a reusable container with food in it.
By using reusable containers in the dining centers, WSU students have saved nearly 65,000 single-use containers and over 6,000 pounds of waste from entering the landfill (photo by Heather Walden/Student Affairs).

By using reusable containers to take home food from the dining centers, students on the Washington State University Pullman campus are making sustainability a part of their daily lives.

WSU Dining Services began providing reusable containers at Northside Café in August 2023, and due to the success of the pilot program, the program has expanded to the other campus dining centers, Hillside Café and Southside Café.

Since the service was implemented, Dining Services reports the reusable containers program has saved almost 65,000 single-use containers and over 6,000 pounds of waste from the landfill, nearly 42,000 gallons of water, and over 43,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are very proud of the way students have adopted this program and are making sustainable choices as part of their dining experience,” said Jason Butcherite, associate director of residential dining.

We are very proud of the way students have adopted this program and are making sustainable choices as part of their dining experience.

Jason Butcherite, associate director of residential dining
Washington State University

A student-informed solution

Dining Services and WSU’s Environmental Sustainability Alliance (ESA) teamed up to find a better solution to disposable take-out containers.

ESA members wanted a reusable container program that was efficient and convenient for students, and Dining Services wanted one that could track daily activity, the number of containers returned, and the environmental impact the program is making.

After extensive research, Dining Services contracted with Topanga.io, a national company known for using technology to help limit the amount of packaging entering landfills. So far, students have returned 97% of the containers checked-out in the dining centers so they can be used again.

“I didn’t expect the return rate to be so high,” said ESA Vice Chair Mason Burns. “The system is easy to use and I’m quite happy with how the program is going.”

How the program works

Students use their phone to obtain a ReusePass, which can be added to their digital wallet for easy access.

Each reusable container has a sticker containing a unique QR code. When a student takes a container to the check-out stand, both the container’s QR code and the student’s ReusePass are scanned, digitally matching the student with that container.

Students are given three days to return their container and are sent a reminder from Topanga if they are late.

“We are impressed with the innovative technology for how it increases efficiency for students, and also for helping us measure the program’s effectiveness,” Butcherite said.

Topanga sends Dining Services monthly environmental impact reports and Butcherite can check an online dashboard to monitor daily activity.

Earth Day Challenge

WSU was one of 14 universities nationwide that participated in Topanga’s ReusePass Earth Day Cross-Campus Challenge April 14–22. Collectively, students at the universities diverted 35,000 single-use containers from waste streams, far exceeding the goal of 20,000 containers. The challenge also spurred an additional 75 WSU students to sign up for ReusePass.

Burns, a resident advisor in Gannon-Goldsworthy Hall, is happy WSU is taking a leading role in reducing waste and said the impact of the reusable containers program is already making a visible impact on campus. Trash cans in residence hall rooms are not filling up as quickly with single-use containers, and the trend extends beyond the residence halls to trash bins all over campus.

“I don’t see trash overflowing as much on the mall or other places, so this program is helping to beautify our campus, too,” he said.

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