Will COVID End Reusable Containers at Trent?

from Tanvi Sharma via 'Unsplash'

Before the pandemic started there was a movement to reduce single-use plastic. This became mainstream when a straw was taken out of a sea turtle’s nostril. As a result, several restaurants no longer provided plastic straws for a period of time.  The federal government of Canada, and governments around the world, have promised to ban harmful single-use plastic, such as plastic straws in 2021. Municipalities, including the City of Peterborough, are either studying bans or banning single use plastics. On October 7  2020, following a report showing the environmental hazards of plastics, the Government of Canada announced that six plastic items shown to be harmful to the environment would be banned including, six-pack rings, plastic bags, plastic cutlery, hard to recycle food containers, straws and stir sticks. Notably, water bottles were not included in the proposed 2021 ban.  

After reading an article “Reusable containers safe during COVID-19 pandemic, say experts” in The Guardian, and noticing that reusable products  such as bags and cups have disappeared  from grocery stores  and restaurants including at Trent University. The Government of Ontario has released guidelines for workers to address COVID-19, including a guide “Curbside Pickup & Delivery and Food Retail Sector”, which says customers should not be using reusable containers especially when handled by workers. There have been uncertainties regarding COVID-19  and safety should be prioritized where there is little information. 

In separate interviews with Mark Murdoch, Director, Trent University Food Services, and Shelley Strain, Sustainability Coordinator of Trent University, and from personal observations, I learned that reusable programs have been shut down on campus, including water fountains and reusable trays.

Source: https://www.trentu.ca/news/story/24301

From the interview with Murdoch I learned that due to the pandemic, Trent University has shifted products to disposable products (not all plastic but, single use) based on recommendations from Public Health. After the pandemic is over Mark Murdoch assured that after the pandemic is over,  or before when guided by public health  reusable programs will be reinstated. 

Trent University was a leader in food service packaging prior to the pandemic, and an envy of other universities, as it was the only university with a Green Star restaurant. With a ban on reusable water bottles, reusable takeout trays and plates, this is at risk. Both Murdoch and Strain are proud of this legacy and say that when it is safe to do so, reusable or waste reduction programs will come back. The work to end single use waste was largely reversed ironically after a week-long event “Trent Breaks Up with the Paper Cup ”, as this is when the shutdowns began.

When asked how many additional items were going to the landfill,  Murdoch said that transactions were down 70% and that there has been an increase in compostable and a decrease in recyclables. Prior to the pandemic, 5% of all meals were on compostable dishes of the 1000 meals served each day. The other dishes were china plates and reusable take out trays. Now 100% of 300 meals are in compostable containers. Strain, when asked how the increased compost might impact the compost system, says it is too soon to know the impacts and that they can be complex because different compost facilities have different acceptable levels of paper products.  Strain said that there was an issue with compost being accepted due to too much paper products  at the Durham Campus prior to the pandemic, and that “we need to be able to know even if there’s paper it [food waste] will be taken”.

A  new contract recently started out just prior to the pandemic which addressed issues faced with paper food containers which are problematic due to the way they are built to prevent them from falling apart, this reduces the effectiveness of composting.  When asked about restaurants where china plates are being served, an example being Swiss Chalet, the response was that restaurants have more control of where plates go and food waste which made sense due to the unknown contact history of plates and reusable products that a restaurant wouldn’t face. 

Strain shared that there is a Proposal to amend the Food and Organic Waste Policy Statement on the Environmental Registry of Ontario website, that relates to compost which you can comment on until November 14, 2020.

There are a lot of uncertainties and differing opinions on waste however it is good to see that Trent University is committed to our safety and going back to a leader in sustainable packaging once it is safe to do so.