One of the many reasons why I love the University of Massachusetts is the school’s dedication to being a sustainable community. One of the ways in which UMass practices sustainability is by providing single-use compostable to-go containers at dining halls and other on-campus food vendors such as Blue Wall, which serves up to 7,000 individual meals per day – the majority of which are packaged “to-go”.
In order to reduce the amount of dining waste, Blue Wall and the campus’s dining halls implemented compostable dining service products just as the University began piloting a post-consumer food waste diversion program in 2012. Since then, compostable and recyclable products have been available for students, faculty and campus visitors to use when purchasing food products to-go, as well as custom collection bins with biodegradable green bags with displays of acceptable materials for each bin.
This program proved to have a significant impact on the University’s waste activity — Blue Wall’s trash disposal rate dropped from 3,000 pounds of trash disposal per day to 1,750 pounds immediately after the program went into effect. The switch to composting appeared to be cost effective as well, since, according to a cost analysis conducted by the University’s Office of Waste Management, “the cost of composting one ton of organic material averages about 35 percent less than the cost of disposing one ton of trash.”
However, an alternative option to compostable containers is on the rise at numerous colleges and universities: reusable containers.
A 2017 study comparing the effects of compostable food service products to those of reusable food service products on greenhouse gas emissions found that while there are environmental benefits to using compostable materials, reusable products yield a greater impact on greenhouse gas reduction.
Many compostable food service products are considered “green” because they are made from plant-based materials such polylactic acid, rather than from petroleum-based chemicals. While the concept of food service products composting with food scraps seems beneficial for greenhouse gas reduction in theory, most compostable food service products end up anaerobically composting with food scraps in landfills. Anaerobic composting is very harmful to the environment, as it results in the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Very little polylactic acid food service products are properly composted in the United States, as most compost facilities do not accept such products. According to a 2014 composting study, about 70 percent of the 4,914 composting facilities in the United States only compost yard trimmings, and only about 7 percent compost food waste. According to a 2015 figure from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, only 5.3 percent of all food waste was recovered for composting.
Additionally, a majority of compostable food service products do not breakdown within the 60- to 90-day period, as most are plastic-coated and take longer to degrade, ultimately ending up in landfills.
Reusable products are not only be more beneficial than compostable products, but recyclable products as well. Washing reusable water bottles and glasses has a far lower impact on global warming potential than recycling single-use water bottles. Usage of other reusable food service products results in “lower overall greenhouse emissions or energy usage than single-use products.”
Reusable clamshell food containers only have to be used 15 times in order to have a lower greenhouse gas impact than that of disposable containers: a single reusable water bottle releases 79 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than using an equivalent number of single-use water bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate and disposing them after one use. In a study at the University of Colorado at Boulder, reusable polycarbonate salad bowls yieldedlower potential impacts on global warming than single-use compostable bowls after only 10 uses.
Numerous schools such as Boston College, Babson College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Harvard University have adopted reusable food service container programs in their dining halls and campus food vendors as a more environmentally friendly option compared to the disposable paper and plastic containers, as well as a means to help combat the loss of dishes and utensils in the dining commons.
Each program operates in a similar fashion. Students and faculty are able to buy into the program for a minimal fee of about $5 and receive either a container or a token that can be redeemed for a container when presented at the dining hall register. Using a meal swipe or other form of payment, students and faculty can fill their containers with a meal to-go. They can then return their rinsed to-go container at the dining hall and receive a token in return that can be redeemed for a clean container during their next visit. Dining halls thoroughly clean the containers to ensure that the proper sanitization steps are taken, and students or faculty can buy back into the program for the same minimal fee if a token or container is ever lost.
The central negative consequence of a reusable container program is the material of which the food service products are made. Most of the containers used in such programs are made with at least 50 percent polypropylene plastic. Although polypropylene is durable, microwave-friendly, dishwasher-safe and recyclable, it is plastic, nonetheless.
Ideally, future programs will use products made with more environmentally friendly materials such as glass or ceramic. For now, however, reusable foodservice products produce a greater environmental benefit than compostable products. UMass should reconsider whether or not compostable containers truly are the most sustainable option and consider adopting a reusable food service container program.
McKenna Premus is a Collegian columnist can be reached at [email protected]