West Windsor Township hosted its second Food Truck and Beer Festival on Sept. 23 at the Vaughn Lot parking area in the Princeton Junction train station.

The event featured over 12 food trucks serving a range of foods from pizza, empanadas and gyros to ice creams and waffles, besides beer and live music. Despite the rain and unseasonably cold weather, the event attracted many foodies from in and out of town.

A key feature of the event was the coordinated efforts to make the event sustainable. As early as July, when the plans for the Food Truck Festival began coming together, a team—consisting of West Windsor Environmental Commission members, students from the West Windsor Plainsboro High School North Environmental Club and concerned citizens—got together with the Parking Authority to come up with plans to reduce the trash generated at the event and reduce the township’s carbon footprint.

Sustainability is becoming an important global issue. West Windsor Township, its students and residents are also embracing the idea, despite federal indifference. Matters are reaching a tipping point now more than ever before.

For many decades, the U.S. has been shipping its trash to China (for recycling). However, since early 2018, China stopped accepting the world’s trash.

Now the U.S. is scrambling to find its own solution to dispose trash in a safe and cheap manner. Progressive states like New Jersey and townships such as West Windsor are trying to address this issue by asking the important question: “What can we do?”

The team proposed experimenting with some unconventional ways to reduce the use of disposable containers at the Food Truck Festival. If successful, the experiment could become a model for future sustainability programs in and around the town.

Enter Clean Water Action, a multi-state non-profit organization that has run several programs to address environmental problems in communities since the early 1970s.

An innovative campaign run by Clean Water Action known as ReThink Disposable aims to address waste created by single-use disposable packaging in the food services industry. Did you know that 67 percent of litter in commercial streets are the result of disposable food and beverage packaging?

ReThink Disposable experimented with reusable trays at other Food Truck festivals such as the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark. Plastic boats or trays, lined with wax paper to prevent food from leaking through, replace single-use Styrofoam or paper trays that most of the trucks serve food in. The trays are collected after use, sanitized and reused.

Take a burger for instance. A food truck vendor will normally place a prepared burger on wax paper, wrap it in aluminium foil and place it on a paper or Styrofoam tray before handing it to the customer.

Instead when using the reusable tray, the vendor is encouraged to place the food directly on a wax paper lined plastic tray and hand the tray to the customer. The reduction in packaging adds up quickly in a festival such as this one, since the only material that needs to be discarded is the single layer of wax paper that lines the plastic tray.

For the experiment to work at the festival however, requires the buy-in from food vendors as well as customers. To educate people at the event, a team of 10 enthusiastic high school volunteers walked around the festival area, handing out the plastic trays lined with wax paper while explaining to customers about the environmental advantages of reusing the plastic basket. Patrons were encouraged to take the plastic trays to the vendors and request the vendors serve their food in the reusable baskets.

The initial reaction from vendors was mixed. While a few vendors immediately saw an opportunity to reduce costs, a few resisted using the reusable trays.

However, as the day progressed and more customers walked around the festival demanding their food to be served on the reusable trays, there was more adoption of the idea.

The student volunteers were eventually able to give the reusable trays directly to the food trucks and even replenish them from time to time.

At the end of the day, 405 trays were returned to the collection stations set up next to the trash cans around the festival area. Even after accounting for the loss of a few trays to customers who may have taken them home, the experiment was a very promising and satisfying one.

The usage of the reusable trays exceeded the expectations of the team by a huge margin. Just knowing that over 450 single-use containers were kept out of the landfill was something to celebrate.

The experiment makes the team believe that the model is replicable. Working with food vendors before the start of the event may have made this program even more effective. A more strategic location for the environmental commission’s tent and a better weather could have yielded even better results.

What was most gratifying was that the experiment resonated with several patrons. Many stopped to acknowledge and compliment the volunteers for their efforts to reduce the event’s carbon footprint. Some even shared their own personal stories of bringing their reusable containers and cutlery to the festival and to other public food events.

Certainly this is a small step towards greening our town and planet, and much more can be done at future food events to limit the use of disposable cutlery and straws. These could include offering single use cutlery items only on-request and limiting the offering of napkins to patrons at future food events. The team hopes that other public events where food will be served can be encouraged to emulate this model.

The team is considering managing a program of reusable serving trays similar to ReThink disposable under the aegis of the West Windsor Environmental Commission. They hope to implement it at the weekly Farmers’ Market. However to make it work, access to an industrial dishwasher would be required to sanitize the soiled trays.

Please consider this as an appeal to any organization that would be willing to provide access to their washing facility for cleaning. Organizations who would like to partner with the West Windsor township on this sustainability program can get in touch with the West Windsor Environmental Commission (westwindsornj.org/environ_commission.html).

— Akila Saravanan
Saravanan is president of the High School North Environmental Club.