Opinion—Recycling and sustainability in a pandemic


Sam Rush/NW

Katarina Rothhorn

This pandemic has incited a plethora of changes to our daily lives and habits, including the most obvious inclusion of physical distancing and mask wearing in public spaces. However, a less conspicuous, but equally as important impact of COVID-19 is the increased waste produced from take-out and sanitary packaging of food. 

Simply by removing the option for places like Starbucks from allowing customers to order with reusable mugs, students can no longer choose to have a more sustainable method of drinking coffee. Instead, they now have to choose between having that extra dose of caffeine in a single-use cup which will most likely end up in the trash, or planning ahead to make their own coffee at home, and not everyone has that choice. You can probably guess the option most people are choosing anyway. 

Northern Lights Dining doesn’t have a lot of options for students when it comes to food packaging either. All meals are take-out only, and even when the seating area is open, eating from boxes is the only option. 

However, according to Paul Schoonveld, the director of dining services, all of the containers served in the dining hall are recyclable as long as they are free of any food. The boxes are also compostable in industrial compost sites, and dining services has been looking into how to shred them so they can be composted by local farmers, said Schoonveld. 

While this is a great step up from the virtually indestructible styrofoam containers most restaurants seem to be dishing out daily, the sheer number of containers, disposable cutlery and plastic bags the dining hall has been giving out during COVID-19 is alarming. Yes, the containers may be recyclable and having that option to compost them is great, but nearly every trash can and dumpster I walk past is full of those empty, white boxes. 

With the paper lining, most containers hardly have any food traces on them and yet no one seems to consider the fact that the packaging they are getting nearly three times a day doesn’t have to be thrown straight into the trash. I could try and blame students for being lazy and not taking the extra effort to separate their recycling and trash, but how could I when they are not even aware the containers are recyclable?

There are no labels on the boxes saying so and no signs in the dining hall encouraging students to recycle their clean boxes, or even just to tear off the clean lid of the box if the bottom is dirty. The only thing the dining hall provides for those students who do choose to eat from their take-out boxes in the dining area is giant black trash cans. 

What is the point of having recyclable containers if no one is going to recycle them or is even aware that they can?

I understand that during times like these, having take-out containers is a necessary evil, but I think we can do better. I feel like some people have slipped into the mindset that since COVID-19 requires us to consume more packaging, it is okay since this is probably temporary. While this situation will not last forever, the way we are treating this excess of single-use containers will most definitely have a negative impact on our global environment. Sustainability only works if everyone does their part; having recyclable containers only works if those who use them know how to recycle them and do so consistently.