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Sustainable BluBox container initiative marks one-year anniversary at UW-Eau Claire

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: The BluBox vending machines offer a quick and simple method to deposit an empty, used container and receive back a token for the next food purchase. Sodexo is able to clean and sanitize all boxes on-site.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about efforts by UW-Eau Claire’s Administrative Office of Sustainability to support sustainability and the value of stewardship on campus and in the community.

As the BluBox container program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire hits the one-year mark, the token-based container-exchange system has reduced the total number of single-use containers in dining services by nearly 100,000. 

“As we reach the BluBox program anniversary on Dec. 6, it remains one of our most visible signs of sustainability here at UW-Eau Claire,” says Brian Drollinger, director of the department of Risk Management, Safety and Sustainability. “Over the past year, we have reduced the use of the ‘clamshell’ cardboard and plastic containers in Hilltop and Davies Marketplace by over 94,000.”

The BluBox system, launched in 2021, was the first major initiative of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Sustainability and Climate Action, modeled after a similar program used at that time by UW-Madison and Marquette University.

“We have successfully promoted BluBox and its impact on sustainability efforts through student engagement and sustainability meetings; through its use we have visibly demonstrated our dedication to sustainability to incoming students and visitors,” Drollinger says.

UW-Eau Claire’s sustainability specialist, Lily Strehlow, is pleased with both the hard numbers and with the behavioral changes this program has brought.

“The BluBox system has not only reduced the number of single-use compostable clamshells we utilize on campus, but the program has also dramatically reduced the volume of landfill waste students discard in Davies, according to ongoing student-faculty studies,” Strehlow says.  

Strehlow says that a fortunate biproduct of BluBox is that students are now required to sort their landfill, recycling and compostable waste before they return their BluBox to its machine. This has increased the amount of food being composted at the waste bins in Davies Center and reduced the amount of recycling and compost being sent to the landfill.

“When food waste and recycling are incorrectly delivered to the local landfill they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” Strehlow says. “When food waste is composted into new dirt it does the opposite — it can become a carbon sink. Proper waste sorting is an important step in reducing our carbon footprint.”

A research project at UW-Eau Claire has been studying student waste disposal habits, a project under the direction of Dr. Scott Clark, professor and chair of the geology and environmental studies department. Clark’s findings have been essential to both the development and assessment of the BluBox container program.

“This is an ongoing research program that started back in the spring of 2016,” Clark says. “The goal has been to study students’ waste disposal patterns and behaviors to help design effective intervention efforts in educating students to properly use the recycle, compost and landfill bins.

“Of all the interventions we have tried in partnership with various campus sustainability stakeholders, the BluBox program has shown the greatest impact on waste disposal behavior. It is a strong, positive step in the right direction, and I hope we can capitalize on the change to make more progress.”

Clark explains that research clearly shows how “combos,” containers with combined categories of waste inside, were routinely thrown away as one item, into a random waste bin instead of being properly sorted into compost, recycling and landfill.

The research showed an average weight of combos to be just under one pound each, bringing total saved landfill waste since the implementation of BluBox to an estimated 86,832 pounds — over 43 tons.

Andrew Solomon, operations manager for Blugold Dining by Sodexo, has witnessed the well-executed BluBox sustainability program since joining Sodexo on campus five months ago.

“I was extremely surprised when I learned BluBox was celebrating a one-year anniversary; I assumed the program had been around longer as it appears to be very well established on campus,” Solomon says. 

“The biggest opportunity for BluBox from our perspective is an educational one,” he says “Blugold Dining has partnered with sustainability offices and efforts to hopefully bridge this education gap during the upcoming Blugold Experience Days for students arriving in the fall of 2023. We hope to provide virtual videos posted on social media, live demonstrations and handouts that explain in detail not only how the BluBox program is designed, but also the importance and impact that it has made and will continue to make on our campus.”

Leading part of such education efforts is a student who has worked on Clark’s waste disposal study and now serves as an intern in the Office of Risk Management, Safety and Sustainability. Benjamin Young, a senior environmental geology major from Cottage Grove, Minnesota, will spend spring semester creating an educational module for incoming students to learn about all campus sustainability efforts.

“Together with Lily and Scott, I will work to create a 20-minute Canvas module assigned to students prior to the start of classes,” Young says. “This training module seeks to build on the progress made with the BluBox program while also creating a culture of sustainable-thinking people on campus.”

The topic areas to be included in the educational module include:

  1. Overall campus sustainability goals (for example, carbon neutrality by 2050).
  2. Proper use of BluBox.
  3. Proper waste sorting in dining facilities (landfill, recycling, compost).
  4. Use of public transportation in Eau Claire.