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Campus dining halls have been at the forefront of the University’s sustainability efforts for decades.

The campus recycling program was introduced in 1989, and 10 years later composting was added in what’s known as back-of-house operations – where the food is prepared and dishes and trays are scraped and cleaned. Compostable materials are a staple in the kitchen area, and leftovers are appropriately composted or recycled before the dishes are cleaned.

Several years ago, bins for recycling and composting were placed in Lenoir Hall’s Mainstreet area and Top of Lenoir so diners could sort the leftovers themselves. Problem is, few people were actually doing it.

There seemed to be confusion about what should go into the composting bin versus the recycling bin, so people defaulted to using the waste bin for just about everything, said Patti Latimer, Carolina Dining Services marketing director.

Clearly, an educational campaign was needed, CDS employees believed, but it had to be something that was both impactful and engaging. That is what led to #EatSortWinUNC, a social media-based educational campaign that was introduced in Lenoir Hall in fall 2018.

UNC graduate student Yashvi Patel helps students navigate the composting and recycling bins at Lenoir Dining Hall as a part of the "Eat, Sort, Win" sustainability campaign.
UNC graduate student Yashvi Patel helps students navigate the composting and recycling bins at Lenoir Dining Hall as a part of the “Eat, Sort, Win” sustainability campaign.

The premise was simple. All someone had to do was to eat a meal, sort the leftover waste into the proper bin and share the CDS messaging on social media for a chance to win tickets to the men’s basketball games against Duke, NC State and Gonzaga. Throughout the eight-week campaign, CDS regularly posted tips about composting and recycling and asked followers to share the messages and tag their friends. Ticket winners were chosen at random among people who helped spread the word.

By the end of the campaign, the messages had reached more than 100,000 people, with 800 students contacted directly by newsletter and an increase of 600 visitors to the website.

More importantly, the dining hall composting bins became less intimidating, so people were sorting their leftovers. Analytics showed that an estimated 107,388 pounds of organic substances were composted instead of going to the landfill, and less than 5 percent of the compost had been improperly sorted.

The 2019 NACUFS Sustainability AwardIn recognition of the successful endeavor, Carolina Dining Services – run by Aramark, the University’s dining contractor – received the 2019 Silver Award in Sustainability for Education and Outreach from the National Association of College and University Food Services. Sixteen universities across North America had submitted entries in this category.

While #EatSortWinUNC began as a CDS idea, the campaign was effective because it quickly became a collaborative campus-wide effort, Latimer said. CDS partnered with Carolina’s Three Zeros Environmental Initiative and the Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling to fine-tune key messages, and the campaign offered what was likely the biggest motivation – men’s basketball tickets – thanks to the Department of Athletics.

“The contest was really about showing folks on campus how easy it is to compost and recycle,” Latimer said. “We knew if we said, ‘Every napkin you use can go in compost,’ people would get it. And we wanted to make it fun.”

To keep the campus engaged, CDS and the Three Zeros Initiative reached out to a variety of campus organizations to recruit sortation concierges. These volunteers, outfitted in special campaign T-shirts, were trained to help people in Lenoir Hall properly sort their waste. Carolina’s beloved mascot, Rameses, was the first sortation concierge, soon joined by members of the UNC Marching Band and other students as well as faculty members and administrators – 70 in all.

The dining hall seemed a natural place to help people learn about composting and think about managing waste in general.

“Composting is a method of recovering organic material – primarily inedible or leftover food, but it can be other products as well – which will be added to the soil that’s used for growing food. Compost increases the soil’s capability to sequester carbon and increases its water-holding capacity,” said Olivia Gambocarto, waste diversion coordinator at Carolina.

The University uses a host of recyclable and compostable products. For example, all plastic drink bottles are recyclable, and plastic compostable straws are now the norm in campus dining halls. CDS also uses almost entirely compostable to-go products, including most cups, containers, lids and utensils in its dining facilities.

Sustainability leaders at Duke and NC State universities have expressed interest in replicating the campaign on their campuses. Amy Armbruster, Three Zeros project manager, has provided them with information and in October will present #EatSortWinUNC at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Conference. Three Zeros is Carolina’s integrated approach to reducing its environmental footprint through net zero water, zero waste to landfills and net zero greenhouse gases.

Beginning in October, the #EatSortWinUNC campaign will be repeated and expanded to include Lenoir Hall, Chase Hall and The Beach. Organizers hope to build on the success of the initial campaign and recruit even more sortation concierges from various campus groups.

#EatSortWinUNC was successful because of the widespread campus engagement, Latimer said, adding: “This is UNC’s sustainability award. Thank you, Tar Heels!”

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