Awareness: Reduce One-Time Waste on Penn’s Campus

Yifan Chang

Author: Yifan Chang is a Master of Education student at the University of Pennsylvania. She previously completed her a BA in English at National Chengchi University. Her interests lie at education technology, environmental education, and English learning.

One-time waste is one of the biggest problems on Penn’s campus. However, it could also be one of the easiest problems to solve. Like most universities, Penn holds many large events each day, resulting in the consumption of disposable plates and utensils. While the accurate number of disposable utensils used is not reachable, I estimated that there would be around or more than 50 events on campus including free food with around 50 attendees for each. Although some organizations on campus use eco-friendly materials, these can also be one-time waste products (plates with food oil cannot be recycled).

The Penn dining room already provides reusable tableware (reusable to-go box) from a 2013 Penn Sustainability fund program called “Green2Go.” The concept of their program is to reduce the use of disposable clamshells in Penn’s dining hall. This idea could and should be expanded beyond dining halls and into more corners at Penn.

Idea: The university should encourage student organizations and school departments to borrow reusable clamshells and plates from the dining hall for their events. Here’s how this might work:

Process: For a fee, campus organizations rent clamshells and plates from the dining hall. Renters are responsible for returning them to the dining hall—to reduce the hassle for kitchen personnel—after an event to be washed and reused. (The clamshells and plates have the benefit of being very light and are easy to transport across campus).

Incentives: Since disposable plates are inexpensive and less work, an incentive is necessary for this plan to work. I recommend a “sustainable award” and partner with Penn Sustainability to have funding to support the award. Every time an organization successfully rents and returns the containers, that organization earns points. When a certain number of points are accumulated, the organization earns a cash award or credit—to encourage their sustainable action. The more times they borrow, the higher the cash award they receive. To prove compliance (i.e. no disposables were used), organizations must submit photos of their event food tables as proof.

Implementation: Build a simple-to-use app in order to monitor the number of containers that are left in the kitchen for rent. Therefore, employees can easily manage requests for containers from different organizations every day and decide how many they can lend.

Marketing: Getting the word out is important. This program could be featured in Penn Today, the Daily Pennsylvanian, GAPSA, department newsletters, and more.

Support: Penn would need to increase the number of staff in the kitchen in order to deal with additional washing tasks that arise from a project like this.

Impact Estimation:

  • 50 people/ event
  • Events held on campus including food/ day: 50
  • Plates saved per day: 2,500, which equals to 75,000 paper plates saved per month, and more than 900,000 plates saved every year.


Originally published on May 12, 2020.

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