Rant of the Week: The Plastic Pandemic Inside MoCo’s Dining Halls


Photo Courtesy of Garrett John Flanagan

For years we have been working hard to cut back on throw-away plastics like plastic straws and bags in an effort to reduce plastic pollution. 

At the on-set of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these efforts and any progress made towards less plastic consumption seemed to have been cast aside by nearly every establishment for the sake of keeping things sanitary — Moravian College’s dining halls have been no exception. 

But are single-use plastics really what we need to prevent the spread of the virus, or could we be doing better to look out not only for our health, but for our planet as well? 

Since their rise in popularity during the early ‘70s, single-use plastics have become a major part of our everyday lives as consumers. Almost everything you can buy at your local grocery store or supermarket is packaged in a plastic wrapper or a plastic bottle, and most of this plastic is thrown out almost immediately upon purchase or consumption. 

From a corporate standpoint, turning to plastic makes sense. Plastic is a durable and versatile material that is cheap to produce, no doubt making it an enticing option for businesses looking for a cost-effective way to package their products. 

From an environmental standpoint, however, plastic is a material that is non-biodegradable, a major contributor to the pollution of our planet, and a great threat to our earth’s ecosystems. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, maintaining clean and properly sanitized eating areas should obviously be of utmost concern, especially on a college campus. To reduce the amount of people eating in the dining areas, Dining Services now provides to-go boxes. 

These washable containers allow students to order food and eat elsewhere, either on campus or in their dorms. These boxes are then returned to the dining locations by students, washed, and then reused again and again. 

The issue concerning the dining hall’s troubling single-use plastic usage lies in the grab-and-go stations located inside of the eat-in dining locations on campus. 

These stations feature a variety of foods like sandwiches, wraps, salads, etc., which are made available for students looking for a quick bite in-between classes. Convenient, yes, but every item in these grab-and-go stations are set out in their own individual plastic box—even condiments. For a full grab-and-go meal, a student would typically grab a sandwich/wrap/salad, a snack, a desert, a plastic water bottle, and maybe a condiment. 

With just that one meal, that student will throw away at least five separate plastic containers alone. 

Keeping in mind that over 12.7 million metric tons of plastic end up in our world’s oceans per year (which doesn’t account for what also ends up in landfills), there has to be a better way for our dining halls to reduce waste while meeting sanitation requirements amid the pandemic. 

If the dining halls are able to give students reusable to-go boxes for the main course meals of the day, why can’t they do the same for the grab-and-go meals? Pre-made grab-and-go items could be held behind the counter so that students can ask dining staff for what they want, and then they can have their meals placed in the reusable to-go box. 

Or if that process might take away from the convenience of the grab-and-go station, paper packaging might be an option to consider. 

While paper products are not so environmentally-friendly either, at the very least they are biodegradable. That being said, paper products don’t always have to come from trees. Companies are now beginning to come out with fully biodegradable food packaging made from hemp that is cheap and almost, if not as durable as plastic packaging without further polluting our planet at every meal.

Of course, keeping students healthy and safe on campus throughout this pandemic should be our main concern, but the pandemic will end eventually. 

The same can’t be said for climate change, especially at the rate that we’re going. 

If we can figure out a solution that combines both cleanliness and safety with environmentally-friendly alternatives to single-use plastics in our campus dining halls, we as a community can help to reduce our overall waste and contribution to the downfall of our planet’s wellbeing. 

Dining Services did not respond to a request for comment.