Reusable lunchboxes launch at University

By Erin Forsythe, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 14, 2013

It takes some out-of-the-box thinking to reinvent the lunch box.

Now in its pilot phase, the Go Blue Box is an reusable, eco-friendly food container offered at the University Club in the Michigan Union as an alternative to the ubiquitous white polystyrene take-out box. The program was created in November in an effort to reduce the waste created by dining services.

The Go Blue Box requires users to register for the program and pay a $5 refundable deposit for a clamshell container. After diners are finished with their Go Blue Box, they can return it for their deposit or bring it back in exchange for a clean one the next time they visit the U-Club.

The box itself is much more durable than the typical foam takeout box, lasting for about 360 uses. The Go Blue Box is also BPA-free, dishwasher safe and microwavable. A reusable soup container is also available for a $3 deposit.

The pilot program was funded by a grant from the Planet Blue Student Innovation Fund and is led by Rich Grousset, Phel Meyer and Dave Yang, students of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.

According to Meyer, similar programs have been implemented at more than 200 universities across the country and experienced a fair amount of success. Meyer added that he was inspired by the work done on the project and grateful for the assistance the PBSIF grant has provided.

“(University President) Mary Sue Coleman made a big announcement (in 2011) setting some pretty ambitious sustainability goals and waste reduction was one of them,” Meyer said. “We thought this was a great opportunity to do something that’s been tried at many other schools.”

“We wanted to do something similar but with a Michigan twist,” he added.

The PBSIF has been a vital source for many sustainability projects on campus, including bike air pumps in different locations across campus and a sustainable food kiosk pilot program that ran last year in April. In 2011, Coleman pledged $50,000 per year for three years in order to promote projects that benefit the environment and encourage student involvement in sustainability projects.

Undergraduates interested in campus sustainability also contributed to the program alongside graduate students. Through a course, “Sustainability and the Campus”, students prepared a marketing campaign and designed operation aspects of the Go Blue Box project.

Laura Seagram, the marketing and communications specialist for the Union, stressed the importance of the course in assisting with sustainability projects over the year. The class has also contributed to the implementation of water bottle refill stations and to signage for the University’s single-stream recycling program.

LSA junior Maria Kim said she had done environmental work in Africa through civil and environmental engineering programs during summer 2012 and was interested in making a contribution on campus through the project-based environment course.

“It was definitely a learning experience of why it’s important to keep things sustainable,” Kim said. “What kept me going was wanting to see this happen in reality, because it’s definitely the first one at our university, and it would be awesome (to contribute to) because Michigan is still moving toward becoming a more sustainable and environmentally friendly university.”

LSA junior Aaron Handley, another student in the course, said programs like the Go Blue Box benefit the participating restaurants themselves.

“All of the logistic analysis that has been done on the containers we use shows that there was much less of an environment greenhouse footprint with the washing as opposed to the disposable Styrofoam containers that most people used,” Handley said. “Something like this is cost saving and reduces the amount of waste each establishment produces.”

LSA sophomore Jason Liu hopes the Go Blue Box would become the standard take-out container, not just a unique innovation.

“We looked at a lot of different schools, (but) the University of Vermont was one of them that we looked at more specifically,” Liu said. Some of their programs had incentives for using it, so (patrons) got five or 10 cents back every time they used the containers.”

Currently, the Go Blue Box is only available at the University Club in the Union, but creators are hopeful that use will spread to other vendors on campus and generate interest from students.

“The University Club wants students to come, and they’re trying to advertise more to students that there’s great dining options available,” Handley said. “And they take Blue Bucks, a lot of people don’t realize that.”

Meyer added that he is hopeful for the development of the Go Blue Box and feels the positive responses they have received are promising for the program’s future.

“Ultimately nobody likes creating waste necessarily, it just happens to be easier to take a disposable container back to your office and throw it away,” Meyer said. “I think people really appreciate having an easy way to improve their behavior.”