Safety Trumps Sustainability Mid-Pandemic

Individually packaged meals are great for limiting cross-contamination but generate a lot of garbage.

By Grace Kenyon | Staff Writer
November 5, 2020
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Garbage bins line the pathway from Anderson Commons. Photo: Katy Coley.

Food service workers at Wheaton Bon Appétit have packaged more than 5,000 meals a day for students this semester. This major shift in the way food is prepared and distributed in Anderson Commons is one of the many changes that has allowed Wheaton students to stay on campus during the pandemic. 

 

But for all their benefits, Bon Appetit’s COVID-19 precautions have come at the expense of the company’s commitment to recycling and other sustainability measures.

 

“This pandemic is the enemy of sustainability,” Raul Delgado, general manager of Bon Appétit on Wheaton’s campus, said. “It kills me when I walk around campus and see all the trash and all the to-go stuff.”

 

Reducing waste is a top priority for the Student Government Sustainability Committee on campus, according to Emma Riddle, senior environmental science major and Executive Vice President of Sustainability. She says she doesn’t blame Bon Appétit for the extra waste. 

 

“Bon Appétit has always been very sustainability focused, and they’re doing a great job connecting sanitation and stewardship as much as they can,” Riddle said. “Obviously with the global pandemic, sanitation is a top priority.”

 

She said the committee is working on initiatives with A Rocha, another student sustainability organization, to educate the student body on best recycling practices, as well as to start a campaign advocating for students to bring their own silverware and bags to Saga. 

 

“We’re going to work with A Rocha on how we can make it clear which Saga containers and take-away items are recyclable and which ones have to go to the landfill,” Riddle said. “There are a lot of containers that could be recycled from Saga. It’s just a matter of taking the time to wash those out and find a recycling bin.”

Students pick up their grab-and-go meals. Photo: Ada Yuan.

The increase in trash from disposable packaging has not gone unnoticed by students. “It fills up our trash can every other day,” said Barak Brown, a sophomore engineering major. He noted that that underclassmen living in dorms don’t tend to recycle their containers.

 

Junior Emma Chrusciel, an English writing and interpersonal communications double major, lives in a dorm and still relies on a dining plan. “There’s always a part of me that kind of cringes when I’m throwing away my container just because there is so much waste that’s building up,” Chrusciel said. 

 

She also said that expecting students to wash and recycle their containers is unrealistic. “We’re talking about college kids here who are very busy and tend to just throw it in the trash and then go. I don’t know if [reducing waste is] necessarily at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds.”

A recycle bin inside Anderson Commons. Photo: Katy Coley.

According to Director of Facilities Operations Jeff Erickson, the biggest challenge is communicating to students what materials are recyclable. He urges students to be “responsible recyclers,” washing food containers when possible and heeding college communications and posters about recycling guidelines. The posters remind students that plastic, aluminum, paper, and electronics can be recycled, but this does not include soiled cardboard food containers.

 

“I do feel that the majority of students are complying with the recycling guidelines they have been given and we appreciate their cooperation,” he told the Record in an email.

 

Although plastic waste may have increased, Delgado points out that because of the simplified menu Bon Appétit is serving, and due to the lack of faculty and staff eating in Beamer, they have seen a reduction in food waste.

 

“It’s been much more predictable for us to control [how much food is produced],” he said. “From that standpoint, we’ve probably done better than anticipated in terms of waste.”

 

While Delgado said he underestimated the amount of packaging required this semester—it takes six to eight people packing containers and two people cutting fruit for the entire work day to serve the Wheaton student body—Delgado sees it as a “small price to pay” to ensure that students can stay on campus.

Wheaton College, IL

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