The Last Straw: A Look Into Campus Dining’s Sustainability Promotion


Horia Andrei VARLAN

Adriel Bineza

In the past year, there has been a growing effort to increase sustainability in the United States. These initiatives have been taking place nationwide whether it be in corporations such as Starbucks, who is currently phasing out straws and providing a newly designed lid in its place, or in local governments like Seattle’s which is implementing a city-wide ban on the use of plastic straws and other plastic materials in food service businesses.

This semester Vanderbilt University followed suit by making several changes to Campus Dining. VPR contributor Adriel Bineza recently sat down with Campus Dining’s Sustainability Coordinator, Suzanne Herron, to gain more insight about the steps Vanderbilt has taken to be more environmentally conscious.

One of the most obvious changes in VU Dining has been a cut-down on plastic products. Plastic straws can no longer be found at most on Campus Dining options; however, paper and recyclable straws are available in some locations. Dining has also eliminated lids for cold drinks as well as plastic bags. All plastic utensils are made of compostable material and are obtained from a single-use dispenser to minimize waste. Herron remarked that these changes were “simply the right thing to do”. She continued on to explain:

“All of that stuff winds up in the waste stream, often times in the ocean. For most of the beverages that we have… a straw or lid is absolutely not necessary. We have just become a society that is so consumed with disposables. In our mind it’s about convenience and being on the go, but actually it doesn’t take that much thought to being more green and earth-friendly.”

Another measure Campus Dining took this year was sustainability promotion through student food consumption.  In October of 2017, Vanderbilt was accepted as a member of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC), a coalition comprised of 64 academic institutions committed to “accelerating efforts to move Americans toward healthier, more sustainable, plant-forward diets” through research and education. “Obviously it takes a lot less of the Earth’s resources to produce produce versus beef. Beef is a huge drain on the Earth’s resources in terms of water and greenhouse gases,” said Herron as she described the premise of Menus of Change. MCURC is based on 24 principles including, but not limited to: reducing portion sizes, moving fruits and legumes to the center of the plate, and serving more seafood and poultry, rather than red meat, as a more sustainable source of protein. The incorporation of these principles has been demonstrated in many of the changes to food options. Examples of these principles include the addition of 2301, which serves a multitude of plant-forward, vegan options, or the new blended burger in Chef James made with 25% mushrooms.

When asked on plans to continue Vanderbilt’s progress in sustainability, Herron stated that there are no concrete plans as of yet, but she would like to focus on optimizing the university’s compost system via sustainability training for dining workers and an increase in student education on the impact food choices have on environmental health.

Both food production and plastic material usage are factors that seldom cross the average Vanderbilt student’s mind. Nonetheless, they play significant roles in the deterioration of the environment. According to a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, food production is responsible for 19%-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions and from 1993 to 2013 the demand for animal products grew by 62% while the U.S. population only increased by 29%. The World Economic Forum estimates that there are currently 150 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean. Plastic that pollutes the water and threatens the safety of marine wildlife. Hence, while these alterations may appear to be trivial and definitely will not single-handedly save the world, the simple daily decisions made by students have the potential to create a small, but meaningful, positive impact on the environment. Vanderbilt Campus Dining is taking a step in the right direction by making those decisions easier.