What’s the deal with foam to-go containers?

One of the most frequently asked questions in regard to dining sustainability is, “why are we still using foam to-go containers?”. Given the volume of food items around campus that are offered “to-go,” crowded dining halls, and busy schedules, it is no wonder that the popular and highly visible issue still remains a focus for environmentally-minded students. The Collegiate Times has frequently featured debates and news on these containers in the past, environmental organizations on campus routinely seek alternatives, and students repeatedly identify the issue as a topic for class projects. If you are one of these students, this article aims to answer all of your foam related-questions and hopefully helps to address some of your concerns.

As for Virginia Tech Dining Services, the calls for reducing foam use and waste have not fallen on deaf ears; we understand student concern about foam and other disposable containers. In fact, we share this same concern and are in agreement that these containers present a major environmental problem both in their manufacturing and in their disposal. In actuality, reducing or eliminating these containers is something we are and have been actively working towards. However, as with all of our sustainability initiatives as well as our general mode of operation, we want to make sure we find the right and most effective solution to the problem, not just a quick (and perhaps not highly sustainable) fix. This approach has continually ensured that we have a successful and award-winning dining program. When we make sustainable changes, we want them to be truly more sustainable. Sometimes, it’s not the most obvious and visible changes that make the greatest impact.

The purpose of this article is to serve as a point of reference for the many requests and questions about disposable containers which we receive. It is a starting point and recap of where we are in our process of improving the situation. We certainly welcome additional student questions and viable ideas that are not addressed here.

Why don’t we switch to compostable/biodegradable/plant-based to-go containers?

Dining Services began composting in January of 2009, and the program has expanded rapidly and successfully. In the calendar year of 2010, Dining Services has already diverted over 300 tons of waste from the landfill and instead to compost–that’s a lot of potential greenhouse gases avoided and space saved! So, then, you may ask–why aren’t we buying plant-based containers that can be composted as well or will “biodegrade”? There’s actually much more to the story. Some schools and restaurants have made the switch to “green” to-go products. Interestingly enough, some of these operations don’t even have a composting system in place. In actuality, these products do not “biodegrade” when they simply end up in a landfill, the same landfill the foam products would end up in. With a lack of oxygen, these products (along with food and other organic waste–our main reason for composting in the first place) instead putrify in the landfill, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Our main hesitation in completely switching to compostable containers is whether or not we can recapture those containers to actually compost them–or at least enough containers to justify the switch. Where do we compost? In the dining halls. Where do to-go containers typically go? Out of the dining center and into the trash, presenting disposal issues on par with or worse than those associated with foam containers.

Especially with a large difference in cost between foam and compostable containers (3x as much), we want to be sure that compostable containers would present an improvement to sustainability instead of being a highly visible, but potentially misleading fix. In addition to cost, there are the logistical issues of whether or not our distributors can consistently provide containers that meet our needs and if we have enough space to sort and store the increased volume of compostable waste the containers would contribute. Any shift to compostable containers would need to happen slowly and manageably. Despite these challenges, we do plan to work through them and implement compostable container use over time: perhaps we can begin with a pilot program at The Farms & Fields Project, where students may be more receptive and understanding to the change. Then we could spread a program throughout Owens Food Court and then perhaps to other dining centers as we expand composting. There is even the possibility to implement satellite collection sites elsewhere on campus, considering the majority of the containers do indeed leave the premises. These are all goals we are striving for, and as we work through the long and complicated process, we appreciate your patience.

What about a reusable container program like those offered at other schools in the area?

The green, plastic “clamshells” have become increasingly popular in colleges and universities in order to reduce foam container waste. We agree that this situation is ideal in terms of sustainability. Though sustainability is a guiding principle in our managing standards, food safety is our paramount guiding principle. We work closely with the local health department, and until recently, these containers have not met our or their safety standards. With recent improvements to the containers and certification for multi-use application, we have been working with the health department to reexamine the use of the containers. Students are currently assisting us in researching best practices at other institutions, which could then be tailored to a specific program at Virginia Tech: should programs be mandatory or voluntary? Do students pay into the program? Where/how are containers physically returned for washing and reuse? How do we track who has returned a container and who has one “checked out”? Once the answers are determined, we hope to initiate a pilot program, again likely at Farms & Fields with expansion to other venues over time.

What about an incentive or a disincentive for choosing existing to-go containers?

Behavioral techniques are incredibly important to sustainability. While we can and do of course make operational changes for sustainability, we want to help change the behavior, and perhaps eventually the mindset, of our students in terms of dining and food sustainability in order to promote lasting change. From a logistical standpoint, incentives and disincentives (particularly monetary) could be easy to implement. Such a program could deter eaters at dining centers from using containers or reward those who do not use containers. Though logistically easy, this might not be the best option for our customers. These monetary incentives and disincentives must often be higher than is culturally acceptable to create any sustained and significant behavioral change. We would also want to ensure a high level of student support prior to implementing such a change.

I am a student concerned about this issue – what can I do now to reduce my to-go container waste, while Dining Serivces works towards a long-term solution?

Eat in. Whenever possible as your schedule and seating space allows, plan ahead to eat in the dining center on the reusable dishes provided in many dining centers. When you must eat on the go or seating is unavailable, you can still avoid a disposable container with just a little upfront planning. Bring your own reusable food container to the dining centers, and order your food “for here”. While we cannot pass your container behind our counters to fill it directly due to food safety reasons, it takes just a few seconds for you to transfer the contents of your “for here” order to your own “to-go” container and then return the dish to the appropriate location. Remember to wash your container well after use to keep yourself safe.

Have you already made these changes yourself and are still eager to do more? Tell your friends to adopt these same practices. Garner support for a reusable container program, and express your interest in this issue. Write comment cards and post blog comments about your desire to reduce foam waste–we want to know that there is broad student support for the waste reduction we’re working toward. Contact the Environmental Coalition if you would like to assist in an educational campaign to increase awareness about foam containers.

If you are interested in getting involved with this issue or other environmental issues on campus, email ec@vt.edu and attend the next Environmental Coalition meeting. This and other clubs on campus are committed to educating students, creating research proposals, and ultimately creating a paradigm shift on campus.

In summary, Dining Services wants to implement the most sustainable, safe, and successful alternative programs to reduce disposable foam containers. Thank you for your support as we continue to explore compostable containers, reusable containers, and overall reduction in disposable waste.

Photo courtesy.

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