By: Justin Holding
5,236 Students – 93 Days – 973,896 Meals–1,947,792 Food Containers
1,947,792 Containers to the Landfill. 0 were Recycled. All in University Housing Alone. During the Fall 2020 semester at the University of Illinois, University Dining Services discarded millions of containers. All of which went straight to the landfill. Every meal, students were given a plastic bag, plastic bottle, plastic clamshells, plastic utensils, and paper containers. The only thing that students might have recycled was the plastic bottle–University Recycling would not accept anything else.
This is a major problem happening all around the world. Single-Use items are used once and then discarded. 300 Million Tons of plastic is produced each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items. 91% of all plastic isn’t recycled at all.
This problem has grown exponentially due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. All meals at restaurants and at the university are packed for take-away. At the University of Illinois,8,446students were served meals every day–5,236in university housing, 1,628in Greek houses,and1,582in private certified housing. Combined, this led to over 5 Million single-use items thrown in the garbage during the Fall 2020 semester alone.
In September 2019, I discovered a solution –Reusable Containers. Reusable containers can be used up to 1,000 times and reduce the environmental impact by 96%. They are economical and a superior alternative to single-use containers. Throughout the summer, I contacted 10 other universities to research their reusable container systems. I also learned about the circular economy –where items are continuously reused instead of discarded. This all led me to start Illini Box, a strategic implementation and consulting company focused on reusable containers.
Illini Box has been working to give food service providers, like university dining, an implementation plan that provides all the necessary materials and knowledge to easily start a reusable container program. By using reusable containers, dining facilities are able to cut costs and use sustainable materials. The students get a high-quality container that is leak-proof and can be microwaved. It’s a great solution for everyone.
During the Fall 2020 semester, I began to improve upon and grow Illini Box. I met with Alums, other entrepreneurs, and competed in competitions. I also grew my team and gained support from other students. My team first competed in 3 Day Startup, a social entrepreneurship weekend. We worked with mentors and crafted our pitch. We learned a lot and won 2ndPlace! We also participated in the Mottier Innovation Challenge. We spent months researching and finalizing our business plan. We worked with RSOs, Greek houses, and dining halls to learn how they have adapted during COVID-19. We discovered how they are providing meal service and reducing expenses to make up for lost revenue. The biggest surprise was that they all had a huge increase in trash disposal costs. This was because of the thousands of containers being discarded every single day.
After crafting a business model and having a final presentation, we placed 3rd in the Mottier Competition. We got great feedback from all the judges and mentors. Working through the COVID-19 pandemic was not easy but we utilized many resources and are ready to test our idea. Next semester, Spring 2021, we will be piloting our reusable container system in two Greek houses. We also hope to test our containers at various restaurants as well.
Identifying this problem, diving into solutions, and working to implement a solution during this semester has been an interesting challenge. I am so thankful for all the help I have received along the way. The Hoeft Technology and Management Seminar provided me many opportunities to network, learn about technology and sustainability, and get advice. I enjoyed hearing from the industry professionals that spoke about their journeys and how their companies are innovating and staying profitable. BP and Anheuser-Busch both talked about the importance of sustainability and the impact it has on their communities. I am so appreciative of the T&M Seminar and the amazing opportunities it has provided. I cannot wait to continue to grow Illini Box and eliminate single-use waste.