Opinion staff column

Regaining a culture of sustainability amid a pandemic

Recommendations for MIT to support reusables and limit waste

Amidst a raging pandemic, plastic waste has surged. With public health taking precedence over sustainable dining practices, most restaurants have made urgent transitions to entirely disposable packaging. The many cities and states considering plastic bans pre-pandemic were forced to renormalize the cheap bags and take-out containers polluting our oceans. On college campuses, operational dining facilities now encase everything from hot meals to unpeeled bananas in disposable plastic, transferred in plastic bags to students, who eat with plastic cutlery: all as safeguards against the virus’s spread.

But as our understanding of the virus grows, so do opportunities to eliminate redundant waste. More than 100 scientists have signed a recent statement confirming the safety of reusable containers during the pandemic. Based on substantial evidence from leading epidemiologists, virologists, and doctors, dining facilities can reduce waste without added risk to diners or staff.

In their letter to Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes, the Undergraduate Energy Club (UGE)’s Climate Policy Team outlines incremental steps our community can take towards a more sustainable dining system. Recommended practices include providing students with personal reusable cutlery packs, water bottles, and tote bags to use at dining facilities. This more sustainable dining model could save over 8,500 tons of plastic, 500 trees, and an estimated $200,000 in semesterly costs.

With every on-campus student using the disposable cutlery sets and plastic water bottles provided twice a day, MIT generates an additional 8,500 tons of plastic waste. And despite the façade of our single-stream system, less than one tenth of these plastics ever end up recycled. Millions of tons of waste end up in landfills, streets, and oceans. We dump plastic into the oceans at the rate of a garbage truck per minute; by 2050, plastic bottles in our oceans will outweigh fish. To make matters worse, experts project plastic production to triple by 2050 — and that was before the influx of disposable masks and take-out containers into our waste streams.

As students, we should call on our institutions to facilitate a safe and effective return to sustainable practices, as well as enable those practices ourselves. Having your own reusable cutlery pack and reusable water bottle at meals would save over five tons of plastic waste just this semester. This also plays an important role in recultivating a more sustainable on-campus culture.

Excluding disposable cutlery by default saves so much plastic. It’s also the reason why we seldom reject or return a free plastic utensil set to a cashier upon receipt, even if we know that our kitchen drawer can’t hold another one. When we have to “opt-in” to accepting plastic plastic silverware, we’re more likely to consider other options (like a reusable pack in our bag).

To regain the sustainable progress that was made pre-pandemic, we need to pressure institutions to be more critical in regards to dining policies. Just as we must listen to scientists and experts when they caution us to wear masks, we must also listen when they assure us that certain practices are safe.

Adjustments like providing reusable cutlery and bottles may feel unsubstantial, but changes like these will most efficiently drive a culture of reuse within campus communities. Relying on recycling feeds into misinformation perpetuated by oil companies that profit from virgin plastic production. If it looks like the system is working, they can keep producing disposable plastics.

In reality, recycling doesn’t happen because it’s expensive, inconvenient, and labor-intensive. Even if a soda bottle somehow makes it into that eight percent of plastics that are actually recycled, it can only be reused once or twice because recycling degrades the material. Immediately after its use (and potentially after one costly, energy-intensive re-melt), every yogurt cup, juice carton, and takeout lid realistically falls into a landfill or the ocean.

If you’re an MIT student, share UGE's letter asking campus dining to do its part, and pledge to do the same. The letter proposes a non-comprehensive, revenue-positive set of changes supporting a reduction of plastic culture for our community. This includes providing students with reusable utensil sets, water bottles, and bags in place of the disposable ones provided at every meal. With safe practices — keeping utensil sets to yourself, filling your own bottle at refill stations, and placing food items into bags yourself — these changes introduce no added risk to students or staff.

In the meantime, play a more active role in the fight. Use your student organization’s funds to buy members cutlery packs, bamboo toothbrushes, or reusable bottles, instead of t-shirts that end up in the garbage. Normalize metal straws and pocket utensils by buying and really using them. Whenever you can, reject disposable plastic.

The plastics crisis is unique in that it can be an individual’s fight. Skipping a disposable utensil may feel small, but one individual’s actions can have an exponential impact, contributing to a culture of waste reduction and inspiring others to do the same. We can fight this problem, together, if we reject plastics now.

Jen Fox is an on-campus senior studying Urban Planning and Economics with a minor in Energy Studies and the Opinion Editor for The Tech.