UMass dining commons need to lose the paper bags

Bag waste is a big problem with an easy fix

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McKenna Premus/Daily Collegian

By Lily Robinson, Collegian Columnist

The University of Massachusetts has a bag problem. A paper bag problem. Brown bags are everywhere you look on campus: bulging and swinging from the hands of students as they trek from dining common to dorm, flattened in skewed stacks at the dining commons’ entrances, empty, ripped, stained, cluttering trash cans and recycling bins. There are too many of them on campus and the majority are being used once, thrown away, and replaced a few hours later. This is unsustainable and cannot continue; luckily, it is also easy to rectify.

As the first two weeks of classes wrap up, coronavirus cases surge and campus heads into a lockdown, paper bag use may not have registered on everyone’s list of daily stressors. A quick look at the numbers, though, can change that.

According to UMass reports, there are an estimated 5,350 students living in the residence halls this semester. Assuming each of these students visits the dining commons an average of three times per day and gets a new paper bag each time, the school is using — and disposing of — an estimated 16,050 paper bags daily. Keep that up for just one week and the university has used over 100,000 paper bags.

Without even getting into the issue of the disposable utensil packages and multiple clamshell containers that fill these bags, UMass is clearly creating a prolific amount of waste. What is equally clear is a solution, at least to the bag problem: stop handing them out.

Mandating the use of reusable bags is the simplest action UMass can take to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability because nothing has to be done on behalf of the school. UMass just has to stop supplying students with an endless supply of single use bags.

If paper bags are unavailable to students at dining commons and retail locations, they can bring their own or find a way to carry their containers without one. If diners can remember their UCard each time they venture out for food or drink, they can also remember to bring along something to carry their meal home in.

Single-use bag bans have been implemented elsewhere and on much larger scales. Plastic bag bans and taxes have been established in over 400 U.S. states and cities, which resulted in huge decreases in plastic bag use, fewer bags used per shopper and observable improvements in bags as a source of litter.

Such laws have been criticized because most reusable bags take more energy and resources to manufacture than their disposable counterparts. There are pros and cons to totes of every material: plastic bags are the least damaging to produce, but are unlikely to be reused more than once and are harmful when — as they often do — end up as litter; paper is biodegradable and can be recycled or composted, but is the least durable for reuse and takes about four times as much energy to make; reusable bags are highly variable depending on the material, but tend to have the biggest environmental impact on the front end and only come out on top if used diligently.

For a few reasons, these caveats should not affect UMass’ decision to stop handing out paper bags. First, most students on campus already own a reusable bag of some sort, so making the switch won’t mean everybody is going out and buying a new bag and making a new environmental footprint.

Second, because paper bags already have a greater environmental impact than plastic, it takes fewer uses of a reusable tote to justify making the switch. For example, National Geographic compared the sustainability of paper, plastic and cotton bags and found that paper has to be used anywhere from three to 43 times to “neutralize its environmental impact compared to plastic,” while cotton has to be used 131 times to do the same.

The article doesn’t directly compare paper and cotton, but the math is manageable: a cotton bag only has to be used, at most, 44 times before it becomes more sustainable than paper.

One more potential, but easily penetrable, barrier to a paper-free dining experience at UMass is the misplaced fear that reusable bags could be a source of spread for the coronavirus. In March, Governor Charlie Baker issued a statewide ban on reusable bags and lifted all regulations limiting plastic bags. As further research on how the coronavirus is transmitted emerged, the ban was lifted and regulations restored. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that the coronavirus is typically spread through airborne respiratory droplets and that it is not common for it to be transmitted through surfaces.

Even those who prefer to take extra caution when it comes to possibly contaminated surfaces should not be concerned about students bringing their own bags to the dining common. Whereas paper bags are handed to diners by a staff member upon entrance, a reusable bag is only ever touched by its owner. Food is portioned into containers and handed to students through a plexiglass barrier and the student places it in the bag themself, making reusable the safest option for both health and the environment.

Due to a risein positive coronavirus cases among the UMass campus community, the school recently moved into an operational posture of high risk, meaning that dining commons remain only grab-and-go style for the foreseeable future. As a result, students will continue racking up paper bags. If UMass makes the switch now, it will take about two weeks to start making a positive impact on the environment.

The ask is simple: don’t place another order for paper bags. Use up the current supply and move forward in an eco-friendlier manner. UMass calls itself a leader and role model for sustainable communities, let’s start acting the part.

Lily Robinson is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]