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Big bash, little trash

Fall Welcome Picnic has all the trimmings without the garbage

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  • Story by Ryan Gavin
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Sept. 9, 2009
Fall Welcome Picnic

Jurl Vinegar, a peer adviser and sophomore mechanical-engineering major, reaches for compostable dinnerware during the Fall Welcome Picnic. The plates are made from a blend of bagasse (sugar cane) and bamboo, and the flatware is made from vegetable starch. Nearly all materials used for the picnic were compostable or recyclable.

Equipped with a fork, a plate and napkin, freshman Laura Jones made her way through the buffet line at the Fall Welcome Picnic. She filled her plate with tomato and cucumber salad, picked up a few cookies for dessert and dressed her hot dog with condiments from tubs near the end of the line. Grabbing a cup of lemonade, she settled in to enjoy the meal and the music of Marching Mizzou.

When asked what she thought of MU’s efforts to make the picnic a zero-waste event, her reaction mirrored many of her peers’: “What are you talking about?”

No plastic, please

With sustainability and environmental friendliness rising to the forefront of university consciousness, Mizzou kicked off the academic year with a quietly green bang, showing you don’t have to sacrifice convenience — or flavor — to hold a large but low-impact party.

Eric Cartwright, an executive chef with Campus Dining Services, had the idea to make Mizzou’s annual Fall Welcome Picnic a zero-waste event. After doing research on what it would take to get all recyclable or compostable materials, Cartwright worked with the CDS Marketing Manager Andrew Lough, the CDS purchasing coordinator and Campus Facilities to make it happen.

“I was pretty skeptical at first,” Lough says, watching thousands of students file in to the Mizzou Recreation Complex for the picnic. “Then I was asking those what-about questions: ‘Well, what about your plates? What about your cups?’ He had answers for every single one of them.”

Although the team was unable to make the get-together truly zero waste, more than 99 percent of the picnic materials (by volume) were either recyclable or compostable. All of the service ware (plates, cups, forks and napkins) was made from compostable materials. Instead of grabbing portioned packets for condiments, students picked up reusable and recyclable bowls, taking only as much ketchup or relish as they needed. The bags used to transport the material from the site were compostable. Even the packaging the food products came in was recyclable, with the exception of some box liners.

Green and greens

Fall Welcome Picnic

Thousands of students attended the 2009 Fall Welcome Picnic in the Mizzou Rec Center, where locally grown vegetables were served with the hot dogs and cookies. After the picnic all food waste was hauled away in biodegradable bags for composting.

One of the biggest challenges in making it the event possible was figuring out how to dispose of food waste. The City of Columbia doesn’t have a permit to compost it at its facility, but after doing some digging, CDS found out the city could conduct trial food-composting runs. Since the amount of food waste was small enough to be considered a trial, CDS got the green light.

“If it works out well, then we’ll talk to them and see about taking on the process of getting permits on a permanent basis,” Lough says. “It was a win-win situation because they got a manageable trial to go through the process, and we got an outlet for the food waste generated at an event like this.”

In addition to reducing waste, Lough says CDS staff and students are excited about — and pushing for — more local purchasing.

Locally grown produce was another sustainable initiative brought into the picnic this year. The tomato and cucumber salad was made with vegetables from Pierpont Farm, which is just south of Columbia. With more planning time, CDS hopes to up the amount of local food served at the annual picnic and in campus dining halls.

With all the thoughtful planning that went into the event, you might expect students’ nonchalance to be bothersome to CDS and advocacy groups such as Sustain Mizzou. But organizers say that, while they would like students to be knowledgeable about how to live sustainably, the hassle-free success is just what they’d hoped for.

“A lot of people hear ‘sustainable’ or ‘zero waste’ and instantly think it’s going to cost so much more and take so much more time and not be as good,” Lough says. “We’re hoping this shows it really doesn’t have to.”

Read more in:  Family & CommunitySpecial Features & SeriesAgriculture & the EnvironmentOn Campus

Reader feedback

  • I would like to say thank you to Eric Cartwright for the wonderful idea.

    Toward the end of the article it was mentioned that the tomatoes and cucumbers for the salad came from a local farm, Pierpont Farm. I would like to suggest that Bradford Research and Extension Center supply the tomatoes and cucumbers, which would be both local and "in-house."

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012