The environmental impact of Purdue’s takeout dining program has come into sharper focus as student organizations quantify the impact and raise questions about the effectiveness of the campus recycling program.
After its switch from plastic foam to recyclable materials, many students still have concerns about the environmental impact of the University’s takeout-style dining program.
Just one student on a 15-track meal plan will produce more than 47 pounds of plastic over the course of the semester, according to The Exponent’s calculations. Individual waste was calculated by weighing the plastic containers, cup, plastic bag and cutlery typically used during a meal at the dining courts, then multiplying this by the number of meals eaten throughout the semester.
Faced with the possibility that much of this waste may not be recycled, student groups are searching for solutions.
Laura Gustafson, a sophomore in the College of Engineering, said she has done her best to mitigate waste by bringing her own reusable utensil kit and water bottle. If Gustafson continued these actions for the semester, she would divert over 16 pounds of trash from being generated, according to Exponent data.
She has been repurposing the plastic bags distributed by Purdue Dining & Culinary to be used as trash liners, she said.
She also washes out her meal containers, a necessary measure to ensure the recycling stream doesn’t become contaminated. But personal measures are impractical for a broad swath of students, Gustafson said.
“It’s too much to ask of the individuals on campus to wash out every single container they use — to take the time to do that,” she said.
Gustafson said this problem is compounded by the lack of adequate facilities to wash out containers in residence halls. For Gustafson, cleaning food from her reusables typically means crouching in her dorm’s mop closet.
While Gustafson said she didn’t mind these efforts, she worries they may be in vain because others don’t do the same.
“I’m honestly not sure if it’s worth it,” she said, “because I don’t think it’s going to get recycled with the other contamination in the bin.”
When all recycling is combined in one container, the system is known as single-stream recycling.
In single-stream systems, contamination of the recyclable material is a prevalent problem, said Amy Krzton-Presson, recycling educator at the Tippecanoe County Solid Waste Management plant.
Plastics covered with food residue are placed in the same bins with paper and cardboard products, she said. Because the food waste contaminates those materials as well, none can be recycled.
Purdue’s recycling program, which uses the single-stream system, likely faces this same issue, Krzton-Presson said.
Another issue these systems face is handling varying sizes of plastic waste.
Plastic utensils are small and thus rarely successfully sorted, Krzton-Presson said, which is why they’re typically not recycled.
Even when plastics are successfully sorted, financial impossibility prevents certain plastics from being recycled.
“Whether something is recyclable or not is one question,” Krzton-Presson said. “Whether it’s marketable or profitable to recycle it is a totally different question.”
No. 5 plastics — the kind the majority of Purdue dining containers are made from — face especially limited markets.
According to Krzton-Presson, these plastics aren’t accepted at Tippecanoe County Solid Waste Management facilities.
The Purdue Office of Sustainability has not responded to requests for comment on the University’s access to a market for recycling No. 5 plastics as of Sunday evening.
Student organizations, increasingly disillusioned with the current system, have taken it upon themselves to look for solutions.
Isha Gupta, a sophomore in College of Engineering and member of the Purdue Sustainability Student Council, said she spent the summer investigating alternatives.
A petition to “Switch Purdue’s ‘To-Go Meals’ method to a Reusable Container System,” created by PSSC on change.org in July, had received 3,319 signatures as of Sunday night.
In response to this lobbying, Purdue Dining & Culinary switched from using Styrofoam dining containers to the No. 5 recyclable plastic containers at the beginning of August.
Utensil dispensers were implemented, allowing students to take only what they need rather than premade packets of utensils, Azrielle Nunnally, director of dining operations, said last month. But Gupta said there is more to be done.
This semester, Gupta’s focus is to encourage students to mitigate personal waste, she said. She hopes to influence the University to improve its recycling facilities by improving signage and accessibility so students can more effectively participate.
PSSC’s long-term goal for Purdue Dining is to switch to a grab-and-go Tupperware system, Gupta said, where meals are packed in reusable containers that are returned to designated deposit areas after meals.
Nunnally declined further comment on Purdue Dining & Culinary initiatives.
Other universities, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have already implemented similar initiatives. The college successfully began a reusable container program for meals in 2017 and reports the system has saved the university money, Gupta said.
Working with OZZI, a company that designs dining systems based on reusable containers for universities across the country, UW-Madison was able to save $125,000 annually used to purchase disposable material.
The initial investment for UW-Madison to serve their five major dining halls was $100,000, with $15,000 spent each year to replenish the lost or damaged containers, according to information provided by the assistant director of dining operations at UW-Madison.
“Purdue Dining was very insistent that they did not want to go with reusables,” Gupta said. “So we’re trying to shift gears and put them more on an environmentally friendly path for the system they have in place.”