Bolton Dining Hall is located at 790 South Lumpkin Street in Athens, Georgia, on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (Photo/Jason Born)

Within the last few months, all of the University of Georgia’s dining halls have become certified level one green restaurants by meeting the rigorous requirements set by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA).

In 2014, UGA Dining Services started making big strides with its composting efforts and has continuously looked for ways to become more sustainable according to Bryan Varin, the executive director of UGA Dining Services.

When UGA Dining Services was going through certification requirements with the GRA, it was pleasantly surprising much didn't have to change about the way it was currently operating.

One of the main factors for certification is composting. When plate waste goes into the dish room, everything must be cleaned off the plate, whether it’s food, paper products or even tea bags. The waste then goes through a trough and then into a pulper where the material is ground up. The ground-up material goes into an extractor which pulls all the moisture out. The material then goes into a compostable bag before being placed in bins behind the buildings. The bins are then picked up and taken to the bioconversion center on campus, Varin said.

The moisture pulled out of the material in the extractor is called “gray water.” The water then circulates back into the troughs and reduces water consumption, Varin said.

The GRA also looks at the building as a whole. As of now, almost all the dining halls have fully converted to LED lighting, and the chemicals used to clean the dining halls are green chemicals. The food for the dining halls are all supplied from local farmers in Georgia and its bordering states, which reduces UGA Dining Service’s carbon footprint.

The goal is to achieve higher levels of certifications, however, there are some road blocks due to the age of some of the buildings. Despite this, Varin is happy with the level one certification.

“[It] is a tremendous accomplishment and speaks to what we’re doing,” Varin said.

UGA Dining Services is also making an effort to make the retail locations on campus more sustainable. As of this year, the Chick-fil-A on campus has reduced its use of styrofoam and plastic products, Varin said.  

UGA Dining Services also worked with Panda Express to replace its previous containers with those that can be composted and eliminated all plastic to-go bags from retail locations, Allison Brannen, the marketing and communications manager for UGA’s Auxiliary Services, said.

While a push toward sustainability saves the university more money in the long run, Varin also believes that making efforts to be sustainable is “just the right thing to do.” 

Later this fall, UGA Dining Services is hoping to advance its aeroponic and hydroponic growing opportunities. By hyper-localizing where the dining halls get its food, the organization is hoping to achieve higher levels of certification. The grow towers, like the one in the Oglethorpe Dining Commons, is UGA Dining Services’ way of dipping its toe into figuring out what it takes to manage and grow those products.

Right now, Varin said UGA Dining Services is working on a freight farm project, which will encompass an aeroponic grow tower environment. It will be a controlled environment with roughly a 30-day plant cycle and the hope is that they will have these farms operational by December 2019.