With the retirement of Penn State’s Green2Go program due to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus guidelines, Housing and Food Services has switched to a single-use, disposable food packaging approach to promote student safety.
HFS sustainability coordinator Anna Sostarecz said via email the CDC regulations for dining settings discouraged using containers or utensils brought in by customers, as well as shared items such as condiments and menus.
Sostarecz added that the use of disposable food service items, like silverware and dishes, was strongly encouraged. Employees would also be required to wash their hands after removing their gloves or directly handling food service items.
According to the CDC guidelines, the only alternative to this method involves washing dishes with soap and hot water while wearing gloves, or placing dishes in a dishwasher.
Because of these guidelines, Sostarecz said HFS found the use of disposable dishware to be safer and more practical than the typical reusable dishware and Green2Go containers.
She also said the existing set-up of the Green2Go program would require multiple exchanges per transaction between cashiers and students, which she said would create too many “unnecessary contact points.”
With these considerations in mind, HFS decided to drop the Green2Go system and switch to an entirely to-go food service with exclusively disposable food service items, including styrofoam containers, plastic silverware, single-serve condiments and plastic boxes and bags.
“The team did not feel the logistical flow of the Green2Go system would be safe for our guests,” Sostarecz said.
Additionally, Sostarecz said her sustainability team in HFS is still committed to sustainability within the dining halls.
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While the Green2Go system has ended, Sostarecz said HFS is taking time to reevaluate how the program will operate for future use, which might push the creation of another sustainable dining program back to late fall or early in the spring semester.
Sostarecz said she and her team are working on a number of changes, including adding barcodes to the containers for better tracking, eliminating the need to interact with a cashier and integrating the containers into the Penn State Eats app.
Grace Joseph — the assistant program coordinator for the dining committee in EcoReps, a student organization that serves as peer educators for sustainability — said although the temporary replacement of Green2Go with disposable packaging is a “big disappointment,” she understands HFS’s decision.
“Before COVID, climate change was a huge threat to human health, so that made Green2Go a great option,” Joseph (junior-nutrition) said. “But now, with the threat of COVID being more imminent than climate change, I think that it’s what dining had to do.”
Joseph said it is hard to predict exactly what effects will arise from the increase in waste production as a result of using more disposable food service items, but she is concerned the university might not have enough recyclable material to meet the state requirements necessary to recycle certain items.
She added, however, that the increase in waste production might encourage students to be more sustainable moving forward.
“I think it’s really disturbing to the students to see plastic and styrofoam containers piling up in the residence halls,” Joseph said. “One potential benefit in all of it is that it could open students’ eyes to all of the waste that’s produced by using styrofoam and plastic instead of reusable containers.”
Justin Chan, who practices and is interested in environmental sustainability, said he understands why the university cannot use the Green2Go program for the time being, but does not approve of the current dining system either.
Chan (junior-actuarial science) said he believes HFS should instead use compostable or biodegradable containers instead of the styrofoam ones that are currently in place.
“The whole thing is horrible,” Chan said. “I understand the safety, but I don’t understand why everything needs to be in plastic bags.”
Chan said he had to ask dining hall employees not to put his food container and silverware in a plastic bag in the Waring and Pollock Commons, as the workers typically do this automatically.
Chan said the university also placed plastic bags for trash disposal outside of certain buildings across campus to manage the increase in dining hall-produced waste, which he said only adds to the waste issue.
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“It’s going to fill up landfills faster and lead to climate change in the long run, and it doesn’t seem like Penn State really cares about that,” Chan said.
Chan said the university should switch to compostable food containers and switch from plastic to paper bags, which can be recycled.
He added that residential dining could also only offer the plastic bags upon request if the paper bags are not an effective option.
Additionally, Chan said students can play a role by contacting HFS and asking that the current system be changed, and by using their own reusable silverware and not taking a plastic bag or plastic water bottle.
Similarly, Joseph suggested students buy their own condiments to leave in their rooms until they want to use them and try more plant-based foods in the dining hall.
Since the dining halls are not composting food waste for the time being, Joseph said students should be more aware of how much food they take.
Joseph also said students can fill out the contact form on the dining website to show HFS that the Green2Go program is a priority to students, emphasizing the importance of student voices in increasing sustainability on campus.
“Students should be aware that they are not completely powerless in this situation and that they can still use their voice and advocate to the university what they want to see,” Joseph said.
Joanne Shafer — deputy director and recycling coordinator at the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority — said although some of the food packaging used in the Penn State dining halls is recyclable, the university does not have the capacity to actually recycle them.
Plastic bags and plastic boxes, like those being used to package fruit and salads, are not recyclable at University Park, according to Shafer.
Shafer said the styrofoam food containers, which are made of a material called polystyrene, are difficult to recycle.
She said these containers would have to be clean and dry in order to be collected, and that the weight of each polystyrene load would have to reach 17 to 22 tons to fit Pennsylvania recycling load size requirements.
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When Penn State attempted to recycle polystyrene in previous years, Shafer said it did not even meet 20 tons in an entire year — let alone a single load — because of how lightweight the material is.
Because of these factors, Shafer said polystyrene has a “huge” carbon footprint.
Despite this, however, Shafer said she is more concerned about ensuring that good recycling habits do not subside during the pandemic, as straying from these sustainable practices would have a long-term effect.
“I just celebrated 30 years on the job, which means I have seen a whole generation and a half of young Pennsylvanians grow up with the ethos of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’” Shafer said. “If we interrupt that for too big a time, I fear it will be difficult to go back and then the impact will be sustained and long-term.”
Shafer added it is also difficult to tell how the increase in disposables would affect the environment in the short-term, particularly because other environmental issues — such as air pollution and the release of greenhouse gases from driving cars, planes and other vehicles — have decreased during the pandemic.
Shafer also encouraged people to get outside and remind themselves of why it is important that sustainability habits are carried on during and after the pandemic.
“Centre County is a beautiful place,” Shafer said. “If there are opportunities to get out and see the natural world and make that connection, it makes us understand why it’s so important to preserve and conserve it.”