There is no trash in Hubbell Dining Hall. Despite the lack of waste bins, the tables are bare and the black carpet betrays no plastic wrap. Students carry their plates to a conveyor system that totes all refuse through the pearly, mechanized gates. Out of sight, out of mind.
Amid a pandemic where disposable is king, Drake University’s Hubbell has achieved the impossible by reducing its waste.
Hubbell’s summer makeover was instrumental to its sustainability success.
“The mindset of the renovation was reducing waste, reducing carbon footprint and reducing energies,” said Director of Operations Vince LoVan.
The renovation was a summer-long, multi-million-dollar operation, according to Drake’s website. It added serving areas such as the Innovation Station and the deli; however, the greatest change was behind the scenes.
To start, the appliances such as dishwashers and dryers were updated to reduce energy waste.
“The new systems that they put in place are more water-efficient and energy-efficient,” said Sophia Siegel, Drake’s sustainability coordinator.
Hubbell moved the kitchen to the same area where the food is served so the chefs can cook on-demand and reduce food waste. Leftovers are sorted and composted by the dining staff.
Last year, students sorted it themselves, and the rate of compost contamination was high.
“It’s all in the back of the house now,” LoVan said. “We took on that process to help our students, to make the dining experience better.”
Students might disagree. Environmental science student Kate Wilson normally buys food without packaging and is mindful of portions, but at school she no longer has control over that.
“There’s a lot of food waste when people don’t get food that they’ll enjoy, or that they can’t eat,” Wilson said.
As a vegan, Wilson has dietary restrictions, and said “the allergen information on the Bite app isn’t the actual allergen information.” This misinformation creates more food waste.
Disposable to-go containers were another major source of waste. Not only did they end up in landfills, but they created extra work for facilities workers instrumental to keeping campus safe.
Hubbell eliminated the disposable containers altogether, opting for a reusable to-go container system.
“We went through thousands and thousands of clamshells in those first two, three weeks,” LoVan said. “Now we have implemented the green to-go [containers] and that helped minimize that waste because this is reusable.”
Unlike disposable containers, the positive impact of reusable containers stretches beyond a single meal.
“With reusable containers you’re getting a more durable product that can be used over and over again,” Siegel said.
The decrease in trash helps facilities focus on making campus safe for students.
“I know the facilities folks have seen the impact of those [reusable] containers, and it took some pressure off,” LoVan said.
The containers were first implemented out of necessity after nationwide shortages in disposable to-go containers. Hubbell had the reusable ones to permanently fill the gap.
“We won’t bring back the compostable boxes,” LoVan said. “Green to-go would be the way to go.”
It’s progress, but there are still kinks to work out with the reusable to-go boxes.
“It made me confused on if I can eat from multiple stations,” Wilson said. “Typically, Hubbell will give you a new plate at each station you go to, so if you have a to-go container and you get food from one station, it’s kind of iffy if you can go to another one to eat.”
While Hubbell has advertised the use of their reusable to-go boxes, the rules are still unclear, exposing a communication gap between dining staff and students.
“We can always improve in sustainability here, and we are open to that feedback,” LoVan said.
Students can send feedback to https://drake.sodexomyway.com/contact/feedback to help improve the campus dining experience.