Sophomore Morgan Neill uses a reusable water bottle and washable mask in an effort to limit her waste. Photo: Megan Hardesty

To date, COVID-19 has killed over 200,000 Americans, closed businesses and forced students to attend school via Zoom. The coronavirus has taken its toll in countless other ways as well, one being the lack of concern around waste. In order to prevent any unnecessary spreading of germs, schools and restaurants have turned to single use items such as disposable plastic forks, plastic takeout containers, paper napkins and disposable surgical masks. While these items may enhance safety, they are greatly decreasing sustainability.

In efforts to keep students safe at school, Pace has introduced plastic lunch containers, plastic eating utensils and paper towels for students to clean off their desks after every class. “I’m not necessarily concerned about the amount of waste,” said Isdell Center for Global Leadership (ICGL) Associate Director Ted Ward. “It’s almost scary how quickly the amount of work over a number of years around the ICGL’s focus to really increase sustainability can go away.”

Mr. Ward is concerned that students have gotten out of the habit of thinking about their waste. “Water bottles like the Hydro Flask used to be the rage around here,” said Mr. Ward. “It’s wild to me when you go into the cafeteria, and you see how many kids just pick up the tiniest plastic water bottle, and it’s like, first of all, you have a reusable water bottle that’s three times the size of that.”

Mr. Ward does not want students to think sustainability is impossible during these atypical times. “We don’t have to fight for public health, but then also give up our commitment to sustainability,” said Mr. Ward. “In this country, we fight racism and sexism and homophobia at the same time, it is not one or the other.”

While some waste is unavoidable, ICGL has many ideas that they want to implement going forward, starting with the Green Council. “I think we have to put students again at the forefront of fixing these problems,” said Mr. Ward. “Because what happens often, and why it’s not successful, is we have adults devise solutions for kids and they don’t have a voice in it.”

The Green Council will be a student-led group that will work to increase campus sustainability, support local efforts, and fight for policies to address climate change. While students join the Green Council, the ICGL has already presented two more solutions. “One of the things that we launched last week was this campaign of bringing your own cutlery to reduce the use of plastic forks,” said Mr. Ward. They would also like to reopen the dish pit. “Even though some of that stuff is recyclable, if you eat out of it, and then put it in a recycling system, it contaminates the entire system with food waste on it,” said Mr. Ward.

Flik Dining, the new lunch service, has worked hard to deal with the unusual circumstances that come with boxed lunches. “We know that there’s roughly 1200 students here, but we don’t know how many are virtual on a given day, or how many of y’all are going to want a hot tray or a salad or a sandwich,” said Director of Dining Services John Young.

After the first week, Flik implemented some changes in their food production. “The changes in our salad bar were done purely to help reduce waste, because we were making all these salads that had the proteins on them and only had a one day shelf life,” said Mr. Young. “But yet, if we take the protein, separate them out and let you all choose the salad you want, we can hold the proteins longer, and then just focus on not wasting the lettuce.”

Mr. Young understands that students are hesitant to waste food in the packed meals that they do not want. “We’re going to be putting specialized items that we know that y’all like, such as the breadsticks, the French fries, and maybe the mac and cheese or something like that, in smaller individual containers,” he said. As of right now, he would like to encourage students to wait until the rush has passed and then go ask the staff for a certain dish if they do not want the entire meal.

Flik is also using statistics to improve their gauge on the quantity of food they need to produce. “On the corporate side, we follow production records, in which we log how much we cook in a day, and then how much we have at the end of the day,” said Mr. Young. “Then we figure out how much we use and we use that number, take it up just a hair to make sure we don’t run out.”

Students have acknowledged the drastic increase in waste and understand that while some waste is necessary to combat the spreading of germs, the Pace community has room for improvement. “With the new lunch system, I ideally eat all that I can, but I do end up wasting some of the food I do not want and I wish that like last year, we had separate bins for plastic and food waste,” said freshman Dhru Lalaji.

“We must bring back the compost bins,” agrees junior Allison Silverboard. “I also think we could switch to biodegradable or compostable containers rather than the plastic containers in the cafeteria.” Silverboard takes measures in her personal life to limit her carbon footprint as well. “I only use washable masks that I purchase from local, small businesses,” she said. Along with her suggestions to switch out the paper towels in classrooms with biodegradable towels and purchase disinfectants that are better for the environment, Silverboard would like to encourage Pace to use its resources to become more sustainable.

Flik has heard the community’s suggestions and is going to work with the ICGL program to implement composting systems in the lunchroom. They also donate all leftover meals to Second Helpings, an organization that supports people who struggle with food insecurities. 

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