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Paper or plastic? How takeout meals are affecting sustainability on College Hill

Office of Sustainability and Brown Dining Services work to “implement sustainable solutions”

As Brown Dining Services has transitioned to-go meals in order to prioritize safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and non-reusable packaging has increased alongside it.

Dining Services and the Office of Sustainability wrote in a joint email to The Herald that they have worked closely to “implement sustainable solutions … within the context of current challenges.” 

A typical Quiet Period meal comes in a brown paper bag, containing an entrée, salad and dessert in separate plastic containers, along with a piece of fruit and two bottles of water. 

Dining Services currently serves around 1,100 students living on campus, and they expect to serve approximately 900 students on meal plan after the Quiet Period ends Oct. 5. A Meal Plan takeout bags also include entrées, side dishes and desserts in separate plastic containers.

Most of these containers are recyclable, with the exception of a few materials that should be sorted into trash, according to Dining Services.

Containers were also carefully selected to best adhere to Brown’s sustainability principles. “The decision not to offer compostable takeout materials was strategic,” according to the email. “There are limited spaces on campus where compost bins can be placed given the constraints from our vendors.” 

But the dining compost program “remains strong,” the departments explained, as all kitchen scraps and napkins are composted and taken by food waste collection groups like The Compost Plant or Agri-Cycle.   

 As of yet, “there have been no issues with processing the disposable material from Dining Services,” but Dining Services and the Office of Sustainability acknowledged that waste volume will increase through the semester and that “the volume will vary based on the style of service used throughout the year.” Some in-person dining could be possible if the University enters Level 2 COVID-19 Campus Activity “based on evaluation in context of health conditions.”

Dining Services plans on launching an analysis comparing disposable products used this year versus last year in October, as the new fiscal year begins. “This will give us a good pulse on the increase of disposable packaging waste,” Dining Services wrote. 

Isabella Luna ’22, former interim co-president of the Brown Sustainable Food Initiative, wrote that Dining Services “has done well with its approach in the situation given,” but she expressed concern about the limitations of current sustainability efforts in an email to The Herald. 

“While some plastics are generally recyclable,” students still produce excessive amounts of waste because they “have limited access to kitchens where they might be able to otherwise clean and reuse or recycle plastic containers or even cook for themselves,” Luna wrote. 

President of Scientists for a Sustainable World Anna Zuckerman ’21 also raised concern that the current financial situation due to the pandemic may prevent the University from fully investing in sustainable “increased composting and alternative waste streams.” 

Dining Services and the Office of Sustainability revealed future plans to collaborate with UCS to create waste-sorting education materials and source input from students. The Office of Sustainability will also continue other sustainability measures, such as the identification and implementation of energy-saving initiatives across campus.

Besides the University’s sustainability efforts, students should also “try to minimize (their) waste and footprint within the parameters that they have been given,” Luna wrote. She cited vegetarian options, storing leftovers, saving unused plastic utensils and reusing takeout paper bags as examples of feasible actions. 

The current situation calls for “weighing every decision primarily against health and safety,” Luna wrote. But the pandemic’s impact on the environment “is something to be conscious of.”


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