Taken together, the typical cafeteria represents a huge opportunity for companies to target in their next big green initiative.
Microsoft has been leading a charge to reduce kitchen waste in its cafeterias and catering services since 2006. The software giant's dining services at its main campus in Redmond, Wash., achieved Certified Green Restaurant status through the Green Restaurant Association in August.
The move toward making its dining facilities greener originated in a 2006 conversation thread on the company's 'MS Green' employee distribution list, which is where workers share their feelings and make suggestions on how the company can improve its environmental profile. "We stay tuned to the conversations going on that list, and we saw a lot of discussion about the polystyrene cups in the café program," says Mark Freeman, the senior manager for employee services in Microsoft's global dining facilities who leads the green dining initiatives.
At the time, the company used and threw away 24 million polystyrene cups every year. "They were a staple for our campus," Freeman admits.
Spurred by employee concerns, his group set out to find a replacement product, spawning a corporate-wide effort to dramatically reduce dining-related waste.
The company now uses only plant starch-based compostable paper cups, and has since replaced all plates, bowls and even utensils with compostable products. That prevents 20.3 million pieces of cutlery, 18.5 million bowls and plates, and 22.1 million cups from going into landfills each year, or the equivalent of 109 tons of plastic.
The accomplishment thrilled Microsoft executives and employees. "When we changed over we received huge support from the employees," Freeman says.
|The Numbers Add Up|
The transition, he admits, had its obstacles. The challenge for a company like Microsoft is finding both quality and quantity in a green replacement. "Few products meet our demand for volume as well as functionality," he says, noting that many of the corn-based compostable products tested by his group either wilted or melted under the extreme heat of soups and hot coffee.
With help from the Green Restaurant Association and the company's paper supply vendor, however, Freeman's team identified and tested multiple products, and ultimately found suppliers who were willing and delighted to meet the company's needs.
"When we switched to a compostable tableware, we doubled that vendor's volume in a day," says Freeman, who takes pleasure in the knowledge that Microsoft's huge size has the potential to create a ripple effect across the industry for green products.
"We hope when others see our volume needs, it will inspire them to enter the marketplace with new products," he says. The company is still searching for compostable straws, cup lids, and single use condiment packets that meet its quality and volume criteria.
Choosing compostable products marked the beginning of Microsoft's green dining initiatives. Freeman's group is in various stages of implementing other innovations across the company, including upgrading appliances and kitchen equipment with more energy-efficient models, adding low-flow aerators to faucets in its 35 cafeteria kitchens, and weighing and composting all food waste.