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Zeroing in on Vanderbilt’s Zero Waste Initiatives

Anya Mondragon | March 21st, 2024

Wooden utensils have become the new normal for Vanderbilt students this semester at Vanderbilt Campus Dining locations like Rand, Roth, Suzie’s and more. It has not gone unnoticed by the student body, but this change is just one of many that Vanderbilt has implemented in the past few years based on a “Zero Waste Master Plan” released in January of 2020. This plan was developed by a Vanderbilt commissioned committee of stakeholders including students, faculty, and Nashville representatives. 

Some of the main initiatives outlined in the Zero Waste Master plan relate to waste disposal, recycling, addressing food waste with campus dining, and eliminating single use plastic across campus by 2025 (excluding laboratory plastics). The term “Zero Waste” refers to when over 90% of waste is redirected from landfills. In pursuit of Zero Waste by 2030, the plan stipulates that there should also be a 30 percent waste generation reduction by 2030 from 2017 measures. 

Vanderbilt sophomore Lily York, owner of the vegan food blog “Nashville Veggie,” said she was aware about Vanderbilt’s Zero Waste Master plan but felt that Vanderbilt could be doing more to reach its sustainability goals. 

“Aside from the argument of divesting from fossil fuels—which I do support—there are plenty of other changes we can make,” York said. “We are transitioning to powering the campus through solar power, and eventually, I think it would be important to go beyond being ‘carbon neutral’ and to be ‘carbon negative.’”

A large piece of the Zero Waste goals has to do with Vanderbilt Campus Dining. Campus dining has begun to implement reusable to-go containers, eliminate single-use plastic utensils, straws, and cups, and divert waste by sending waste to recycling instead of landfills when possible. Additionally, as outlined on the Vanderbilt website, the dining halls plan to reduce the consumption of red meat by serving seafood and vegetarian options more often. Furthermore, every burger made by Vanderbilt Campus Dining is 25% mushroom, 75% beef. Every new student also receives a free reusable water bottle when they arrive on campus freshman year, which reduces the need for plastic water bottles. 

“The most infamous [change] is the switch to wooden forks in many of our dining halls,” York said. “Other changes that are less contentious are the Reuse Pass green boxes, the TV above the Rand conveyor belt displays daily food waste statistics, and […] local partnerships to more sustainably source some produce. I am unequivocally in favor of these changes to reduce campus waste.”

For the 2021-2022 year, Vanderbilt emitted 128,058 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2E). This represented about 1.12 percent of Nashville’s total community greenhouse gas emissions for 2021, according to data from the 2021 Sustainability Advisory Report for Nashville. In comparison, the total greenhouse gas emissions for operations of the Nashville Metro Government, including employee commutes, waste disposal, and all government buildings, was 560,000 MTCO2E in 2021. While the changes Vanderbilt is making to reduce this number are a step in the right direction for achieving Zero Waste by 2030, York said that this is only one part of the sustainability puzzle. 

 “As an academic institution that aims to foster our next world leaders, I think there needs to be a greater academic investment [from Vanderbilt] in teaching climate issues and solutions,” York said. “Vanderbilt as an institution can be carbon neutral, but if Vanderbilt as a student body continues to harm the environment then are these sustainability goals meaningful?”

Works Cited 

Breggin, Linda & Kopstain, Eric. Executive Summary of 2021 Sustainability Advisory Committee 

Report. Vanderbilt University, Jan. 2021,,%2C%20residential%2C%20and%20industrial%20buildings. Accessed 18 Feb 2024.

Campus Dining. Sustainability. Vanderbilt University, . Accessed 18 Feb 2024.

George, Andrea & Petty, Mark. Zero Waste Master Plan. Vanderbilt University, Jan. 2019, Accessed 18 Feb 2024.

Vanderbilt Environmental Health, Safety, and Sustainability Office. Annual Sustainability Report FY2021-2022. Vanderbilt University, 2022, Accessed 18 Feb 2024.