Staying green during a pandemic: U-M dining halls to feature compostable takeout containers

August 26, 2020
Written By:
Adam Fisher, U-M Planet Blue

Dining hall server putting food into container. Image credit: MDiningUniversity of Michigan dining halls are set to resume full lunch and dinner service, with an eye toward making composting portable.

Typically, U-M dining halls offer reusable ware for on-site dining. But this semester, all meals will be served in takeout containers, and most of those containers will be fully compostable. These measures aim to reduce dining density while advancing the university’s commitment to composting.

“It’s important to all of us that we do not forget about broader environmental issues in the age of COVID-19,” said Steve Giardini, the university’s senior associate director of residential dining. “And we’re excited to assess the viability of making composting to-go.”

U-M students are returning to campus this week and classes—consisting of a mix of in-person and remote courses—are scheduled to start Aug. 31. A few dining halls opened Monday, with seven-day-a-week service to resume at most dining halls and to-go locations on Thursday.

Michigan Dining, one of the nation’s largest campus dining operations, expects to serve about 95,000 meals per week across the university through residential dining halls and to-go “outposts.” Given the university’s adjustments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan Dining anticipates a decrease in retail sales and catering offerings. During the upcoming semester, MDining will deliver leftover meals to Michigan Medicine, the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Ann Arbor and Food Gatherers.

All meals will be served in takeout containers, with limited seating available at many locations across campus. To reduce density, new to-go outposts are also set to open at the South Quad Blue Cafe, Central Campus Recreation Building, Michigan Union, Michigan League and Pierpont Commons.

MDining will also offer extensive composting options and signage, having partnered with the university’s Office of Campus Sustainability, Student Life, Waste Management Services and Custodial and Grounds Services to offer compostable ware and increased compost bins in common areas and building lobbies across the Ann Arbor campus.

Most dining locations will offer fully compostable containers—though some to-go meals at outpost locations, as well as those offered to students in quarantined housing, will use noncompostable containers to ensure food quality.

“We really hope to set a new standard for composting within higher education,” said Alex Bryan, sustainability programs manager at U-M Student Life. “We looked at like-minded institutions when considering materials and developing signage and found that solutions were not readily available elsewhere. We hope that others remain cognizant of waste reduction, waste diversion and composting efforts.”

MDining has long prioritized composting, both for those preparing meals (pre-consumer) and for customers (post-consumer). Post-consumer composting is particularly challenging because noncompostable items are often mixed into the compostable waste stream. U-M’s compost vendor requires that at least 99% of waste delivered is compostable.

U-M Student Life and the university’s Office of Campus Sustainability previously implemented compost bins in all residence hall waste closets, enabling campus sustainability partners to continue composting programs this year, even as MDining’s distribution adapts.

Together, these efforts help advance the university’s goal of reducing total waste by 40% by 2025. MDining has diverted 34% of its waste from landfills to help meet the cross-university goal.

Earlier this year, U-M was a top-ranked university in the 2020 RecycleMania competition, placing first in the large-campus division for zero waste. Participating universities aimed to achieve the highest diversion rate by recycling, composting and reusing items, across a subset of buildings, to reduce the amount sent to landfill.


More information: