In a semester when the health and safety of the community trumps all other regular operating procedures, sustainability and the health of our planet are being put on the backburner.
“Everything about COVID-19 is concerning,” said Brian Cohen, assistant director for Sustainability Engagement. “The rise in use of disposable plastics is not a good side effect, but if it’s important to understand that some of the reasons are valid.”
The dining halls on campus have shifted to a takeout format in an effort to de-densify indoor dining. De-densification efforts are aimed at reducing the risk of coronavirus transmission. This shift has involved an increase in the use of reusable takeout boxes, and with that, disposable plastic utensils and cups.
Globally, COVID-19 has led to an increase in single-use plastic cosumption. Many restaurants and dining halls on campuses across the country have shifted to disposable alternatives that are harmful to our planet. As time passes, our environmental behaviors become increasingly crucial to the survival of our planet, as well as to all life on earth.
Wake Forest is one such example of a school that has shifted to disposable takeout dining options. While it is surpassing some schools in its efforts to keep unnecessary waste down by using reusable takeout bins instead of polystyrene, it is still struggling to prioritize sustainability during this time.
“Plastic is pretty harmful to our environment at every stage,” Cohen said.
An increase in plastic waste threatens natural and human communities, according to senior Sarah Templeton, who is majoring in Environmental Science. Plastic waste pollutes ecosystems and affects the species that live in them.
“An increase in single use plastics is concerning because there is a chance it could become a normative behavior,” Templeton said. “People may become accustomed to using these products and any sort of benefits they provide, and not switch away from using them once we are safely out of the pandemic.”
While staff says that students are encouraged to exercise their sustainable responsibility and use their own reusable utensils when they can, this is not a behavior that many students remember or think to do.
“I have noticed an increase in how many disposable plates and takeout containers my housemates have been using,” Templeton said.
While a shift to include reusable silverware and cups in a takeout bundle, along with the reusable takeout bins, could reduce waste while de-densifying dining halls, the school worries about the financials of this option.
“Reusable silverware and cups aren’t inherently less safe than the compostable alternatives we currently have available,” said Josh Suzuki, Operations Manager of Hospitality and Auxiliary Services. “The challenge is that it is unlikely that these would all be returned in a timely manner.”
While financials have played a big role in the decision to continue with disposable takeout options, the perceived barriers of the safety of reusables have also played a significant role, according to Sophie Wimberley, Waste Reduction Specialist with Maintenance & Utilities Services.
“[A challenge] I and the environmental community face is helping people understand the difference between barriers and perceived barriers,” Wimberley said. “It is my opinion that safety with reusables is a perceived barrier rather than an actual barrier.”
The Environmental Science department believes that they have to pick and choose what they challenge, because the school is not always forthcoming with adaptations. Discussing alternative reusable options for the dining halls this semester is something that Wimberley has deemed an unprofitable use of time.
“[It’s] something that most people learn when they start their careers,” Wimberley said. “And this is especially true for the sustainability field, is that you have to learn to pick and choose your battles.”
The university is also looking at overall numbers of waste being produced, and they are not concerned. Campus is producing less waste this semester than in a regular semester. While this looks promising at first glance, the number of students, faculty and staff present on campus this semester is much lower than it usually is.
“COVID-19 has not increased waste,” Wimberley said. “It has decreased waste because the campus population is smaller. So, it hasn’t hurt waste goals.”
While the amount of waste being produced has been lower overall, the diversion rates have also been lower. This means that comparatively, more waste is going to landfills than is being recycled or composted. In the last fiscal year, 56% of all waste was diverted from landfills, whereas this year there is only a 46% diversion rate, according to Wimberley, meaning a majority of waste is landfill-bound.
“We’re making these short-term shifts for the health of our community,” Suzuki said. “Long term, this is just a blip that we’re trying to get over.”