uOttawa, I'd Like to Introduce You to Zero Waste Dining

Thursday, August 20, 2015


A rendering of uOtawa's new dining hall


A while back, I want to say maybe 5 or 6 years ago but I am a little fuzzy on the details, my colleague Brigitte and I resolved to create a very lofty goal for ourselves. We resolved to become a zero waste campus! What I am not fuzzy about was the reaction. Essentially laughter and disbelief.

The Conversation
Well here we are some time later and I am sitting in a meeting with the Director of Food Services and we are talking about the new Dining Hall. Patrick, he's the director I was talking about, is all excited about what he's got in store for the space. He's talking pasta bar, like fresh pasta bar, like there's a machine in the background making the pasta from the raw ingredients; he's talking a game room, like a bunch of new PlayStations or X-boxes set up for people to relax and enjoy themselves; he's talking a space where you make your own food... no joke, pots and pans and a pantry overflowing with food for you to do as you please.

Now Patrick is going over all these details and I am kind of impressed and so he leans over and says, "Did I mention that we are going to be 95% waste free?"
Patrick leans back and waits for my reaction. I flash a face that tells him I am impressed and we sit there and nod for a minute or two. Then we get into the details.
How are you going to deal with plastic utensils? - There won't be any
Same for plates and bowls? - Yep
What about fountain drinks? Those cups are a pain in my ass! - Gone, only real stuff
Yeah but coffee creamers? - Strait from the jug baby

I was started to get very very interested. So Patrick and I go back and forth on a couple more details and then he asks me to sit on the consultative committee which of course I agree to.

The Back and forth
Cool factor aside, there are some details about the Dining Hall that I know some people won't be happy about. First, the meal plans in some residences become mandatory. I can see how some people are going to be mad about this and I can also see how some will be happy.

Also, the Dining Hall is designed for you to come in and sit, Harry Potter style. Large tables and lots of seating. No taking things away to eat somewhere else, no packing things up and saving it for later. The whole place is like a slow food movement space come true. So this is bad for people who want to rush off to class and great for people who want community and meaningful meals. By the way, this 'staying in one place' is why I keep saying Dining Hall instead of cafeteria... the experience is 100% different.

The Dining Hall is a 24/7 space so if you want to stumble in at 3 in the am, no one is going to say a word. And the menu is different too, more healthy choices and sensible portions. If you want more stuff, take a second helping but things are portioned appropriately. There is a dietitian on staff and there are some legit stations for gluten intolerances, allergies, and vegans… not salads… real vegan options.

If anything, I am actually a little worried that there won't be enough space. There will be hundreds of places to plug in your laptops and phones, and there are going to be some great views... I mean the space is essentially a glass box looking out over some o the campus' best green space. I predict crowding.

A rendering of uOttawa's new Dining Hal
The final straw
Fast forward a couple of more months and we are at our fourth or fifth consultative meeting. We've gone over coffee providers, we've talked about food rotations, and now we are down to the dirty details.... we are talking trash bins. The way I see it, we don't really need trash bins. All the food and napkins are compost and there won't be anything else really. We got rid of any bottles, any plastic, any metal, so we don't really even need recycling. The cleaning crew will clean up any stray bottles (like ketchup or something) and so what's the need? We even decided to ax dining trays to help reduce over consumption.

And then someone says it... "What about our straws? We need to put them somewhere!" I suggest we just get rid of straws and that solves our problem. I don't know why but this intense discussion breaks out about how we CANNOT, with a capital C, do without straws. So there it is and we decide that we are going have a super huge bin for compost and a super tiny one just for strays.

Without those straws, the Dining Hall becomes an actual ZERO WASTE space. I can’t tell you how much sleep I lose over this. I start conversations with strangers about how having a bin just for straws is going to confuse people. I design small replica garbage bins with the tiniest opening just for straws. I start sketching posters with tag lines about how straws are the enemy and we all need to “Do our part!” I start getting kinda weird.

And then out of the blue Patrick calls me up. He is talking about the time table for the project and out of nowhere he blurts it out… “Oh yeah, I am getting rid of straws. It just makes things easy.”
I am flipping out. this is absolutely amazing! I get this sensation like my soul is jumping out of my body, doing a couple of fist pumps and then settling back in. I respond to Patrick, "Cool". He says he has to go and I get to deliver the good news to my team that zero waste is on.

So why is this so important? A couple of reasons.
One, my office really didn't do very much. We didn't have to drag Food Services into this kicking and screaming. They did all the heavy lifting and they deserve all the credit. More and more, people on campus are talking sustainability into their own hands and this is a good thing. In my mind, everyone should be a sustainability vigilante.

Two, this zero waste space is the first of its kind on campus. Remember back at the start of this post when I said stuff about, and I quote, "laughter and disbelief"? Well  no one's laughing now. This is a real space and it gives people hope. And no I don't think I am exaggerating when I say hope. People need to see something like this with their own eyes. Sometimes it is easy to dismiss a concept like "zero waste" because you can't imagine it in action. This Dining Hall will let them see exactly that. It will let them see that vague concepts of sustainability can be reality and that we as a species can create something better.

I don't really know what's next. I mean I can imagine right. Maybe paperless offices and free bicycles for everyone. Maybe the president's office will ban suits in the summer time to reduce on air conditioning and maybe we'll cover our roofs with vegetable gardens. But I want you to think about something... next time you hear someone say "carbon neutral campus" or "car free campus" or "100% renewable energy", I want you to think about how those are actually things and with your help, we'll make them happen.

In the meantime, uOttawa, I would like to introduce you to Zero Waste Dining.


  ~ jON - campus sustainability manager

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