Case competition gets students involved in dining sustainability

By Stephanie M. McPherson

Food rotting in landfills pours methane into our warming atmosphere, and production of that wasted food produces carbon emissions the equivalent of 33 million vehicles. Institutions like Boston College have a responsibility to manage their food waste and ensure their 15,000 students and 3,500 employees know how to do the same. 

That’s why this year’s Eagles Sustainability Competition (ESC) saw the Schiller Institute, Carroll School of Management. and the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) teaming up with BC Dining to task students with finding a solution to campus culture’s relationship with food waste. The three winning teams addressed this prompt in unique and creative ways, engaging what they’ve learned in classes from computer science to psychology to economics. 

“We saw a lot of interdisciplinary teams, which is exactly what we want to see,” says Liz Healy, a member of UGBC’s Environmental and Sustainability Division and a junior studying political science. “All the teams this year were super high caliber. Part of the reason we picked the winners that we did was because they were tackling the culture on campus and not just a specific technical issue that could be figured out with administration.”

The Competition, now in its second year, asks interdisciplinary teams of undergraduates to solve a sustainability related problem on campus. 2023’s inaugural competition focused on waste and carbon emissions associated with BC athletics. 2024’s looked at the more day-to-day issue of what to do with excess food in the dining hall. 

Eighty-five percent of the BC student body has a meal plan, meaning BC Dining serves nearly 25,000 meals a day. Dining has made great strides toward sustainability in recent years, committing to purchasing local food when possible and implementing programs such as LeanPath and EveryBiteCounts to help reduce food waste. 

But there’s only so much the Dining administration can do. Front-of-the-house efforts like composting and choosing reusable dinnerware require buy-in from students that has not been happening at the hoped-for rate. 

“When we look at our student population, we know our sustainability interns and certain student groups are all in,” says Megan O'Neill, director of Procurement and Systems for Auxiliary Services at BC. “But so much of the population is not. And so how can we help foster that?” 

From Games to Greenhouses

Nine teams presented on March 22 at 245 Beacon in front of a panel of faculty and staff representing departments and administrations from around campus. The judging panel also included multiple BC alumni, who have pursued careers related to sustainability or have a personal interest in the topic. All teams impressed, but the winning proposals focused on increased student engagement. 

First place went to JIC, made up of sophomores Junsoo Chung (double majoring in Economics and Computer Science), Isyarya Sylbert (an Environmental Science and Biology double major) and Carter Frato-Sweeney (majoring in Applied Psychology). JIC proposed the creation of an app called Eagle Eats Royale (a play on the idea of a battle royale) to teach students about composting and recycling, and reward students for their food-related sustainable behaviors. Points gained on the app could be translated to BC store cash or even, potentially, tickets to BC games. 

“We found that the student body lacked a lot of knowledge about proper recycling, composting, and trash technique,” says Sylbert. “Our goal is to widen both their knowledge and also their engagement with sustainability and think of it as something that's more important, not only in Boston College dining, but also in their practices and daily life.” 

The judges believed their gamification system would appeal to students who need some external motivation to start the occasionally confusing process of learning about sustainable practices. 

“This group really focused on … a bigger systemic change,” says O’Neill. “The app that [they’re] talking about, making it fun and competitive, we just think it could go a long way.” 

Second place was awarded to the team Shawstainability, for their idea of an AI-powered data collection system to track the types of food students throw away and inform Dining’s decisions regarding menu items and portion sizes. In their proposal, cameras would be installed above compost and trash bins in certain dining halls. The images gathered would be fed into a machine learning-powered system that analyzes which aspects of which dishes are being trashed the most. The system, once trained, would be so precise that it could differentiate between excess rice being thrown away from Tikka masala versus a burrito bowl. 

The team engaged the student-run Machine Intelligence Group to write and train the program, and monitor it should it be implemented. This approach could be especially impactful as Dining considers a shift from an a la carte model to all-you-care-to-eat, which would make it harder to keep track of which food items are being purchased. 

“[We really liked the] fantastic collaborative integration between multiple different fields of study amongst BC students providing a solution and being the solution rather than needing outside sources really to start implementing some sort of structure,” says Emily Kaiser, BC class of ‘14, Attorney at Holland and Knight & Adjunct Faculty (CSOM).

The third-place team, Braemore Consulting Group proposed the use of a composting-to-fertilizer-to-greenhouse system that would introduce the idea of a circular food economy to BC Dining. Their plan would have Boston College partner with Ecotone Renewables, a company co-founded by Elliott Bennett, BC class of ’21. 

Ecotone makes a large-scale composter that directly turns food waste into carbon negative fertilizer. Braemore went further to suggest BC use this fertilizer to treat its lawns and provide nutrients for new greenhouses — built from recycled bottles and maintained by environmental clubs on campus — that would provide certain food items to the BC dining halls and farmers markets. 

“I want to give kudos to every team, but this team extreme kudos, particularly for presentation skills. Really just way above what I would ever expect from anyone in a university setting,” says Kaiser. “This team also really has put a ton of thought into the progression of the circular economy.”

A Multi-pronged Solution

All teams came to the presentation rooms full of creative ideas, ranging in scale from requiring all students to purchase reusable Green2Go containers to reorganizing the order of compost, trash and recycling bins in cafeterias. Though there were only three official winners, many suggestions throughout the day excited the representatives from Dining. 

“I was just so impressed by the BC students and all their creative ideas, and they inspire me for our team to just get better in this area,” says Beth Emery, Director of Dining Services at BC. “There's so much room for improvement, so I look forward to collaborating with a number of students as soon as this semester.”

The Schiller Institute and Dining have already scheduled follow-up meetings, so students should look forward to seeing new sustainable dining practices coming their way.

Sustainability is a complex issue that cannot be solved by environmentalists alone. The Schiller Institute’s commitment to generating and implementing interdisciplinary ideas in collaboration with the next generation through this yearly Eagles Sustainability Competition is a key way forward in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation. 

“Sustainability is not a vacuum issue. You need different disciplines looking into it,” says Chung, of first place team JIC. “Doing this competition was a good way to reinforce that.”