Fairfield University has prided itself on being a proponent of sustainability for at least a decade. Since the institution was named a ‘Cool School’ by the leading environmental lobbyist group, the Sierra Club, it seems that our leaders continued to dedicate themselves to a sustainable future. In 2015, Fairfield University released a new sustainability plan that included an initiative to begin composting food waste from students. This plan, a partnership with Blue Earth Compost, was enacted in August 2019, and shortly after, the University announced another partnership, this time with Quantum Biopower, to dispose of food scraps in an environmentally friendly manner. This was a huge step for Fairfield, especially since, according to the Town of Fairfield, “30 to 40 percent of the US’s food supply eventually goes to waste,” eventually contributing to a substantial amount of greenhouse gas. However, because of the pandemic, we are seeing a setback in Fairfield’s environmental initiatives.
The Daniel and Grace Tully Dining Commons, which used to employ the use of real plates and reusable silverware instead of the traditional trays, is now a warehouse of plastic encased meals and single-use utensils. While this is an understandable change due to the pandemic, the sheer amount of plastic that accumulates in the trash rooms each night from just one meal is obscene.
Trash rooms have become a graveyard of clear plastic stained by the food it used to contain. Some containers still contain food, especially if it was the home of a meal that was not as good as its consumer might have thought. White plastic spoons, forks and knives litter the floors. Since students typically do not want to put in the work that it requires to properly recycle an item, the recycling bin is always overflowing with non-recyclables. The amount of discarded plastic on our campus is absolutely appalling, and it is time for us to think of some new ways to serve food while keeping our students safe.
While plastic is an easy way to get food safely and cleanly transported from one location to another, there are multitudes of initiatives to replace our reliance on plastic. For example, we can continue supporting the composting process by putting composting bins in the residence halls. The compost bins can then be taken to Quantum Biopower, with whom we have a partnership. This way, we can continue our partnership with an outside organization in our area that we already work with while keeping our carbon footprint low and our campus clean. The only thing residents would have to do is scrape their food into the designated bin.
The containers, though, are both another story and my primary concern in this issue. Personally, before I came to campus last semester, I had thought that the “grab-and-go” option would be more sustainable than it turned out to be. I was under the impression that, just like the last year I had spent at Fairfield, the food at the Tully would be self-servable. While in hindsight, this is not possible due to our COVID-19 restrictions, the Tully employees have the option to scoop food out of the metal troughs it is displayed in and pile it into containers. The idea that this would be the case prompted me to obtain reusable containers to put food in before I even visited the cafeteria. However, the use of single use plastic containers is required for taking food out of the Tully, which is heavily problematic.
There are solutions, though, and they are not too difficult to implement. For example, students like me can bring the reusable containers they already own to the Tully, pass them to the employees, and have the employees scoop our food in there. That way, we can respect the COVID-19 guidelines while being perfectly sustainable. For those who do not have reusable containers, options like the GoBox and Green Grubbox are great ways for the Tully to reuse plastic take out containers. Since “biodegradable” and “compostable” take out containers can be misleading and produce more waste than they’re worth, it would be a better option to use these reusable containers instead. Residents have access to sinks to wash the containers, but there could always be a station in the Tully that would allow one to exchange a dirty to-go box for a clean one, much like a towel at a car wash. This practice could be moved, if needed, to places like the Stag after there is no longer a need to take out food from the Tully.
Similar practices can be used with silverware instead of using plastic utensils. As someone who tried to anticipate what the Tully would be like in the Fall 2020 semester, I had purchased a set of bamboo utensils so that I do not have to use the plastic ones. However, not everyone has silverware (or bamboo-ware) in their room, so the Tully could either purchase “green” silverware, or just cycle the silverware the same way as reusable to-go boxes. It isn’t a hard fix, and it was something we were essentially already doing before the pandemic.
The last solution I have for a more sustainable Fairfield is in terms of reusable bags. Even though there was a plastic bag ban in Connecticut, the Tully still loves to provide students with plastic bags that are labeled “biodegradable.” Of course, none of these bags are even remotely close to being disposed of properly, and the entire purpose of the initiative goes back to where it started. Again, I anticipated this, and got myself reusable bags. This is not an uncommon thing, though, since a lot of Americans are now opting for reusable bags to bring to stores instead of paying the fee for a plastic or paper bag. The Tully could encourage the use of reusable bags, but in case someone forgets, they could provide paper bags.
Being more sustainable, while it looks daunting, is not that much of a challenge considering the amount of alternatives that are available. As an institution that prides itself on being “green,” we should continue to be trailblazers in sustainability and saving the environment that we take so much for granted.