Case study: Schools move to reusable utensils

Minnetonka schools move to reusable utensils


You might think that purchasing reusable eating utensils and bowls for schools would increase water consumption as well as costs, but Minnetonka Middle Schools (East and West) discovered firsthand that this is not the case. With a grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnetonka Middle Schools replaced their disposable utensils and bowls with reusable alternatives.


As a result of the switch to reusable items, the schools:

  • prevented 6,712 pounds of trash
  • expect to save $23,000 over three years

And that’s not all. The environmental footprint of manufacturing the stainless steel reusable utensils:

  • reduced greenhouse gases by 77%
  • water consumption by tens of thousands of gallons.

Making the move

The Minnetonka Middle Schools began this transition by examining their current methods. After sorting and recording the amount of waste the existing system produced, and starting to divert food waste and recyclables, they found that 70% of the remaining garbage generated in cafeterias was plastic flatware, portion bowls, wrappers and bags. With individual school populations reaching almost 1,000, there was a lot of waste that could be avoided with reusable items.

The schools already had waste sorting stations to collect trash, food/organics and recyclables. When they switched to reusables, they just added another tub to the line to collect the utensils and bowls.

By replacing disposable utensils, the schools also eliminated additional costs associated with storing, unpacking and disposing of the utensils after only 20 minutes of use. Disposables needed to be trucked from distributors to the schools at least monthly, and required more than 700 boxes. The reusables were shipped once per year and had less than 50 packages. During the course of three years the reusable items will have a much longer useful life. Instead of 20 minutes and into the trash, the reusables will be used for 10,200 minutes — 500 times longer than the disposables ever would have been used!

In all, reusable utensils seem to have altered relatively little in regards to the lunchtime routine. The handling time for staff increased by only 20 minutes each lunch period and was partially offset by no longer having to stock, open and manage boxes of disposables. There was not a great increase in water use for washing the reusable dishes. Kitchen staff ran an average of 38 dishwasher loads each day without including utensils and bowls. This only increased to 41.5 loads with the addition of reusables.

Finally, despite one-time purchases such as carts and racks, the Minnetonka Middle Schools saved $3,000 on reusable lunchware, and the annual per student costs dropped from $6.89 to $4.83. Because the expected lifespan of these reusable materials is three years, instead of spending $38,218 on disposable utensils, the schools will spend an estimated $14,818 during that time period.

Weighing the environmental, financial and transportation benefits, Bill Jacobson, principal of Minnetonka Middle School West, said he believed the program was a success.