Now that many freshmen have moved to campus to begin the fall semester, University dining halls are in full swing, serving thousands of students upward of three times a day. However, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, dining halls are serving to-go-only food in plastic foam and plastic containers, harming the environment and setting the University’s sustainability initiatives back years.
UT must find more sustainable methods of serving residents in dining halls.
When residents enter into J2, Jester City Limits or Kins Dining, they have no choice but to leave the dining hall with multiple plastic foam boxes, plastic silverware and plastic grocery bags holding their meal. After eating, students cram their waste into one of the constantly overflowing trash cans on campus, unable to recycle any of the materials that packaged their meal.
Students are feeling the effects of this unnecessary waste. Taking one look at the trash cans while walking around campus proves just how much waste is being generated, and we are barely three weeks into the semester. Students are uncomfortable using so much plastic and plastic foam but have no other options if they want the meals they paid for.
“I don’t like the styrofoam use at all,” said Catie McGill, math freshman and Jester West resident. “As a university, we need to be promoting green living, and styrofoam is not at all the way to do that.”
Due to the new dining regulations, the University’s Zero Waste Program is completely worthless. According to UT’s website, the goal is to reduce waste being sent to the landfill by reducing the amount of disposable products purchased and diverting materials to the recycling facility instead of landfills. The program claims to have a goal of being Zero Waste by 2020, and while nobody expected the pandemic to happen, why would a university claiming to be so focused on reducing waste choose plastic foam and plastic dining options over cardboard or paper?
University Housing and Dining is not the only place facing challenges. The Castilian, an off-campus dormitory, has struggled balancing sustainability and COVID-19 regulations. The Castilian offers a dine-in option with reusable plates, metal silverware and glass cups. However, they do not allow reusable water bottles, and because they kept buffet-style dining, every sandwich, salad and meal is individually wrapped to reduce contamination.
By individually wrapping each meal, more plastic is being used than necessary. This makes the dine-in option ineffective in helping to reduce waste and does not give students any sustainable eating options.
“I try to eat in the dining hall as much as possible in order to use plates and metal silverware instead of single use containers,” said Brynn Havern, environmental science freshman and Castilian resident. However, the lack of completely sustainable options cause Havern to have “a tiny existential crisis every time (she) eats.”
It’s understandable that the University needs to take regulations to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, it is possible to increase sanitation and practice social distancing while maintaining sustainability measures.
Use cardboard or paper instead of plastic foam and plastic to package meals. Allow students to bring their own reusable silverware, containers and water bottles to dining halls. Encourage students to recycle or compost whenever they can.
This is a challenging time for everyone, and the pandemic is — and should be — at the forefront of our thoughts. However, if we continue to take our attention away from important matters once something bigger presents itself, progress and improvements will never last.
Hosek is a psychology freshman from Austin, Texas.