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Student environmental groups push for Dining Hall to reduce plastic use

The Dining Hall will now allow students to use reusable bags for takeaway meals instead of single-use plastic. Graphic by Shabana Gupta.

Following pressure from the Student Environmental Committee (SEC) and Green Fund, The Dining Hall is now allowing students to bring reusable bags rather than plastic in an effort to reduce waste output created by the new COVID-19 protocols.

“As part of a community that’s constantly striving to be more green, it’s kind of counterintuitive that we use so much plastic. I’m very glad D-Hall is allowing us to use reusable bags now,” said Eleanor Corbin `24.

Students’ efforts to reduce Grinnell College’s plastic waste goes beyond just bags to advocating for compostable containers and reusable cutlery as well.

Since August, Dining Services have distributed meals to students living on campus from the Dining Hall by placing their food into plastic containers, which are then placed inside a larger plastic bag which has plastic cutlery already inside the bag. As a result, the College’s plastic trash production per student has spiked since the Dining Hall’s shift to plastic containers, cutlery, and bags, said Chris Bair, the College’s environmental and safety coordinator.

Nameera Dawood `23, who has lived on campus since March 2020, noticed the uptick of plastic when the pandemic began, although not as much during the fall when fewer students lived on campus. As campus capacity expanded with the arrival of first-years in January, Dawood joined Green Fund to advocate for allowing students to bring reusable bags as a first step to hopefully reducing the Dining Hall’s plastic waste.

As part of a community that’s constantly striving to be more green, it’s kind of counterintuitive that we use so much plastic. – Eleanor Corbin

“It really kicked into gear this spring, with the first-years coming and there being a lot of waste produced. … I talked to someone at D-Hall, and they were like, ‘Probably 700 bags a day is an estimate of how many bags are taken every day.’ And of course each bag has its own cutlery too,” said Dawood.

The Green Fund began coordinating with the SEC to change what they viewed as a flawed system. Originally, Green Fund tried to work with Dining Services to provide every new student a cloth bag and cutlery that they could reuse, but that idea was denied due to a lack of funding from Dining Services.

Dawood and Rachel Snodgrass `21, SGA’s environmental sustainability chair, reached out to Jeannette Moser, director of dining services, to figure out why reusable bags weren’t allowed in the Dining Hall, and whether that policy could be changed.

What Dawood found out was that despite weeks of Dining Services denying students the option to bring in their own bags to reduce plastic usage, there was never actually an official rule that barred students from bringing reusable bags.

“There wasn’t actually any policy that prevented people from bringing cloth bags – at all,” said Dawood. “There was not enough communication between the people who were working at the Dining Hall and the people who were managing it all.”

On the week of Feb. 22, the Dining Hall officially added a “Bagging Station” at the end of the line for students to bag their meals, which is sanitized after each use. Plastic cutlery is now optional and it has been clarified that students can bring in a reusable bag, but bags cannot be placed on any surface except for the Bagging Station.

There wasn’t actually any policy that prevented people from bringing cloth bags – at all. – Nameera Dawood

After adding the Bagging Station to the Dining Hall, some students tried to bring in a plastic bag from a prior meal to reuse, instead of a cloth bag, and were told by dining workers that they could not reuse those bags. In a later email to Snodgrass, Moser clarified that plastic bags are allowed to be reused, and that she would reiterate this to staff.

Some students held the assumption that reusable bags were less safe than single-use plastic bags. However, research shows COVID-19 particles may be just as resilient on cloth as they are on plastic. A March 2020 study from The New England Journal of Medicine found that active droplets can remain on plastic surfaces up to 72 hours after being infected, and a later study by De Montfort University found that virus particles stay on cloth for up to 72 hours as well.

In other words, plastic bags are no safer than reusable cloth bags.

In addition, the vast majority of COVID-19 transmissions occur person-to-person via respiratory transmission rather than surface-to-person.

The College’s clarification allowing reusable bags was welcomed by students. In a survey sent out by SEC to 311 students living on campus, 85.9 percent said they would bring their own cloth bag to the Dining Hall if they could and 94.9 percent said they’d use one if provided by the College.

Green Fund is still pushing for further changes procedure by encouraging the Dining Hall to provide food in compostable containers rather than the non-recyclable plastic.

In the survey, 95.2 percent of respondents said they’d support the switch to compostable containers, and 97.1 percent said they’d support the addition of compost bins in residence halls and in the Dining Hall.

In an email to Snodgrass, Moser wrote that switching to compostable containers is not possible, but did not explain why. Moser declined multiple requests for comment for this story.

Some members of Green Fund are also planning to place a sign on the entrance to the JRC which explicitly states what types of bags students are allowed to bring in and how to properly recycle the different plasticware that students receive.

SEC is urging students arriving in Spring Term 2 to bring reusable bags, utensils and reusable water-bottles to reduce plastic waste.

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Nina Baker
Nina Baker, Staff Writer
Nina Baker is a fourth-year Russian major with a Russian, Central European and Eurasian Studies concentration from Lakeville, Minnesota. When she's not reporting for The Scarlet & Black, she loves taking long walks, reading, and learning foreign languages.
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