New to Elon University this semester is a program that directly ties our campus’ dining initiatives with its pledge to promote sustainability — reusable to-go containers. Through this program, students with any meal plan can receive a free, or purchasable for $7 without a meal plan, reusable to-go box to use at any on-campus dining location.
An interesting caveat to this program is, once you are done with your container, you don’t even have to carry the dirty container around. Your used to-go box can be dropped off at any dining hall to be cleaned. You can either grab a new box or, if you don’t want the bulk of a container to carry around, you can grab a carabiner to exchange for a new container. Allowing students to have access to reusables like these not only provides an easy option for grabbing meals when you’re in a rush, but it also creates a narrative around the waste we generate and how it can be limited.
Waste reduction has been one of Elon’s main concerns for quite some time now, with the past initiatives of compostable cutlery and to-go containers starting as early as 2008. In phasing out plastics in Elon’s dining halls over a decade ago, the Office of Sustainability collaborated with Elon Dining to propel the mindset of reducing our carbon footprint in terms of post-consumer waste. This helped created awareness for how much landfill waste we contribute.
This is very important when thinking about how detrimental single use plastics can be to our environment, especially when there are easily several hundreds of students grabbing their food to go on a daily basis. In general, it can take hundreds and hundreds of years for plastic to actually break down and disintegrate. Therefore, any piece of plastic we’ve ever used or created still remains in our landfills and oceans today.
That being said, when our national population is upwards of 328 million, it’s crucial to be thinking about how much waste we’re putting into our earth. Implementing compostable items like the to-go boxes we’ve seen in past years has played a huge role in reducing our waste mainly because most compostable items take a fraction of the time to decompose — shifting from up to 1,000 years for plastic to up to 180 days for compostables.
While it’s amazing to be able to outsource plastics in almost every area of our dining halls, our work isn’t finished. Compostable items, though they are much more environmentally sensible than single use plastic containers, can become a bit more problematic in terms of the resource usage it takes to create and supply these products.
Compostables use a lot of energy to make, along with the transportation costs it takes to ship these products to our campus, as well as the effort used to bring our compostable waste to a commercial facility for it to be broken down. These are all things that, while they cut down on plastic waste, can still add to the carbon we emit into the atmosphere.
So, when we look at sustainability in terms of resource usage, compostables actually fall behind using reusables. This is why the Office of Sustainability and Elon Dining have pushed even further past just swapping plastics for compostables, but actually finding ways to be able to reuse items we use on the daily. With our new reusable to-go container program in place, we hope that students will not only utilize this free/low-cost program, but recognize how easy it is to hone in on the waste you’re creating and find ways to make your everyday life more sustainable.