Recycle, buy local, sustainability are mantra of URI dining hall operations

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KINGSTON, R.I. – July 18, 2012 – For the fifth year in a row, the University of Rhode Island’s Hope Commons dining facility has been recognized for excellence by the National Association of College & University Food Services. And one key reason for its success is the effort made by the staff of URI Dining Services to make its operations as environmentally friendly as possible.

“Some sustainability initiatives we do completely on our own and some we rely on the campus community for help,” said Michael McCullough, associate administrator of URI Dining Services. “They add up and are all important for us to be able to tax the environment less. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.”

URI Dining Services provides 1.1 million meals per year in two dining halls, a retail venue and a catering operation.

The newest addition to the Dining Services sustainability initiatives is the sale of its waste vegetable oil to Newport Biodiesel for conversion to a biofuel.

“We’ve recycled our oils for close to eight years, but we’ve never been sure what the vendors used it for,” said McCullough. “Our new contract with Newport Biodiesel has been a real plus for us. We hope that some day the oil we give them will come full circle and end up in our gas pumps to power our vehicles.”

McCullough said that one advantage of the contract is that Newport Biodiesel has provided state-of-the-art, secure storage vessels for the oil that remain on the loading docks and are pumped out at least weekly, reducing the likelihood of spills from trying to move them. Although the fee the company pays for the waste oil is small, McCullough hopes that one day it will provide scholarships to students interested in alternative fuels or sustainable business operations.

Another major focus of Dining Services is the procurement of foods from local vendors. The primary vendor for produce is Roch’s Fresh Foods, which works closely with local farmers to streamline the process of acquiring local produce from multiple locations in the state. URI students grow some produce – basil for pesto, herbs, cherry tomatoes and salad greens – right on campus.

“You can’t get any more local than that,” McCullough said.

More than 30 other vendors from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut provide most other items on the menu.

The decision not to use trays in the dining halls has also had unexpected environmental benefits. “It’s saving soap and water and labor to clean them, and it’s saving food costs, too, because if you have a tray you tend to load it up more,” McCullough said. “Going trayless is a hot-button issue in food service these days. Harvard called to ask how we did it. We just took them away, and people embraced the idea immediately and never asked for them back.”

Composting is another big issue that McCullough hopes to address. Most pre-cooked food scraps and other compostable materials like coffee grounds are already being separated and compacted for easier disposal. The stumbling block is finding an appropriate location on campus for composting and identifying how it will be maintained.

“We certainly will be a willing participant when those issues are addressed,” McCullough said.

Dining Services has undertaken numerous other initiatives to make their operations more sustainable, from eliminating polystyrene take-out containers and using paper products made from recycled materials to selecting vendors that have a sustainable component to their operations. And at the end of each semester, all perishable foods are donated to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

When the University’s oldest dining hall, Butterfield, is renovated next year, the sustainability rating for URI Dining Services will only get better.