On her first day on campus, environmental advocate Zosia Sandweiss approached Kinsolving Dining and was met with trash cans filled with plastic foam boxes, piled on top of one another like Jenga blocks.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions this semester, UHD was forced to change long-standing policies. Instead of using reusable cups and plates or taking food to-go through the sustainable Eco2Go program, dining halls are now solely dependent on single-use polystyrene plastic foam boxes.
“Using styrofoam will lead to tremendous amounts of waste,” said Sandweiss, a business and sustainability studies freshman. “I wish (University Housing and Dining) would have weighed the University's environmental footprint more heavily.”
Riley Anderson and Siddha Sannigrahi, student co-directors of UT’s Campus Environmental Center, are among those who oppose UHD's reliance on plastic foam.
“Most of us know that styrofoam is bad,” said Anderson, biochemistry and sustainability studies senior. “It doesn't break down. It releases toxic chemicals in the air when you heat it, and it takes up a lot of our landfill space.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the polystyrene industry is the fifth largest contributor to toxic waste in the country. Experts estimate the decomposition of polystyrene can take up to 500 years.
“There should be more emphasis on trying to find alternatives,” public health junior Sannigrahi said. “There's a lot of materials we could use instead.”
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends university cafeterias use disposable food service items where possible.
Rene Rodriguez, director of food services at UHD, said using plastic foam was less of a choice and more of a last resort.
“Everyone in the country scrambled to get these kinds of materials,” Rodriguez said. “Suppliers didn’t have enough inventory to meet our needs.”
Now, he and UHD sustainability coordinator Neil Kaufman are working together to find more sustainable alternatives for the future.
“Our preference is not to use styrofoam,” Kaufman said. “Our preference is to return to the way we were and to go beyond that in terms of sustainability. We want to innovate.”
Rodriguez said any changes to current UHD policies on single-use plastics will depend on cost and student population on campus.
“We are looking to introduce some kind of compostable container next semester,” Rodriguez said.
Although plastic foam is not recyclable, Kaufman said students can still promote sustainability during the pandemic by paying careful attention to what they’re recycling and throwing away.
“Another way students can practice sustainability is by sorting their waste properly, making sure that what they put in the recycling bin is actually recyclable,” Kaufman said “We need students to do this so we can actually recycle recyclable products.”
Rodriguez encourages students to buy reusable utensil kits available at Jester City Market, Cypress Bend Cafe or Kin’s Market. Kits are $6.29 and include a reusable fork, knife, spoon, chopsticks and straws.
Rodriguez said while UHD wants to work towards sustainability, the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to put their environmental goals on hold for the safety of students.
“We want to do what's right,” Rodriguez said. “Unfortunately, like anything during this pandemic, there were surprises and hiccups.