Campus sees spike in waste due to COVID-19 guidelines, takeout dining

Waste receptacles are pictured in Stratton Hall on Nov. 2. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily

This semester has seen an observable increase in waste on the Medford/Somerville campus, particularly as it relates to Tufts Dining’s adaptations in response to the COVID-19 guidelines.

Kristen Kaufman, the recycling and waste reduction coordinator at the Office of Sustainability, said the office defines waste in terms of total accumulated waste production, including landfill, recycling, compost and specialty recycling items.

“The main way we track data on how much recycling we produce, how much landfill waste we produce, and how much waste we produce in general — and a lot of other fun numbers and rates — is from the waste hauler. When they service the dumpsters, they have a scale on their trucks, and they weigh the waste for us,” Kaufman said.

The Office of Sustainability would also typically conduct waste audits as an internal means of collecting quantitative and qualitative data on common contaminants in the recycling and items that should be recycled but are placed in landfill — information that’s helpful for evaluating how to educate students to be better stewards of their waste, Kaufman said. However, during the pandemic the office has not been able to administer these.

In terms of waste related to personal protective equipment, Kaufman said she was under the impression that, when planning over the summer, the university could only provide disposable masks, so the Office of Sustainability has been incentivizing the use of reusables wherever possible.

“We are pushing out education and outreach to encourage reusable masks to reduce the waste from disposables. I will say though that disposable masks have not been the waste issue; the waste issue has been from Dining’s takeout service. So that’s really the main thing,” Kaufman said.

Dining service has been primarily operating on a single-use takeout model. As per the Fall 2020 Campus Guide released before the beginning of the semester, students must set reservations before walking through Carmichael and Dewick MacPhie Dining Centers, later specified, using the Transact Mobile Ordering App. Food is served by dining workers, placed into plastic takeout containers at each station and then typically carried out in the brown paper bags offered at the beginning of the line.

The Office of Sustainability and Tufts Dining are collaborating in a “Dining Takeout Waste Education and Outreach Campaign,” in which Eco-Reps have been involved with creating informative TikToks, recycling guides and social media posts about appropriate methods to handle dining hall waste.

Kaufman said the Office of Sustainability has two main mottos regarding disposal of the plastic takeout containers. Acknowledging that students may not have ready access to a sink, the first rule is that the containers don’t need to be rinsed — though rinsing is ideal — but as much food residue as possible should be scraped out.

“The other tagline is, if we can tell what you had for lunch in that container, it’s still too dirty,” Kaufman said. 

Kaufman said she had anticipated the plastic takeout containers would be the primary concern because they are only recyclable when they are clean and dry; however, the paper bags students use to carry out their meals have proven to be the major issue.

“The problem is that [the paper bags] are recyclable, and people are recycling them but inside they are full of nonrecyclables like napkins and leftover food waste, so that’s creating contamination in the recycling stream,” Kaufman said.

The paper bags must be empty and flattened before recycling in order to conserve room in the physical bins. Due to the overflow of trash containers in residential halls, Kaufman said that the custodial service has had to increase the frequency with which they empty out both the trash bins and dumpsters — which can be costly for the university.

Kaufman added that she’s still waiting on the most recent, full data report from the waste hauler, but that a recent conversation she had with Facilities and the waste hauler confirmed that there has been an observed overall increase in waste related to the COVID-19 policies and the dining hall takeout services.

“We put most residential dumpsters on 6x/week (as opposed to the normal 2x/week) and even added additional dumpsters to accommodate the waste,” Kaufman wrote in an email to the Daily.

Sam Markowitz, a sophomore and an Eco-Rep for Wren Hall, said he does not think the university will change its dining hall policies in response to the increase in waste, but would like to see the integration of student-brought reusable containers.

“They could maybe let students bring their own tupperware in the dining halls and stuff like that to reduce the single-use plastics over and over again. But I think Tufts is prioritizing, for good reason, [its] COVID response. So, I think that they are not going to try and do more sustainable tasks that might, in their minds, [increase] the COVID risk on campus,” Markowitz said.

Kaufman mentioned a new development from Tufts Dining now allowing and encouraging students’ use of their own reusable bags or reusing the brown paper bags from previous meals to carry out meals.

“[Tufts] Dining is a great sustainability ally to us. They would have also preferred to use reusables because it would be more economical for them,” Kaufman said. “But part of another issue that comes with COVID is just staffing and labor that’s needed to do stuff is not only more limited due to COVID but there’s a lot more that needs to be done … in terms of safety precautions and sanitization of stuff. So, it was not feasible for dining.”

The Tufts Food Rescue Collaborative is another group that partners with Tufts Dining to combat waste — specifically food waste — on campus, consisting of up to 15 student volunteers who work to redirect food that would have otherwise been discarded toward those in need.

“Food waste is a massive issue while food insecurity is also a big issue, so it’s sort of wild that those both exist in the same food system,” Ava Dimond, a junior who currently serves as a coordinator for Tufts Food Rescue and as an Eco-Rep, said.

Dimond said Tufts Food Rescue usually operates on two main branches: Van Rescue, where students transport food such as breads and produce from grocery stores to food banks, and Family Meals, which works with the outside organization Food for Free to package meals from unused food in the dining halls.

“What [Family Meals] used to do when dining halls were self-serve is pack up extra food that the students haven’t eaten — like totally untouched — and they would pack it into meals using a special machine …  and those are just like actual ready-to-go meals that would go straight to people,” Dimond said.

Unfortunately, the Family Meals group has been unable to operate this semester because there is insufficient space for students to work alongside the dining workers while also adhering to social distancing guidelines. Van Rescue, however, has remained operational this semester.

Composting proposes another means to alleviate food waste.

“People don’t really realize that in addition to not contaminating the recycling, it would help with the food waste issue if they composted the leftover food. If they do grab too much and … they just throw it in the garbage, that also contributes to CO2 emissions because food in landfills emits CO2 when it rots,” Dimond said. 

While compost bins are interspersed throughout campus residence halls, Kaufman said the university does not have a campuswide composting system, largely due to contracting reasons, complex logistics, cost and the educational undertaking necessary to set up the appropriate infrastructure. 

Markowitz suggested do-it-yourself methods for converting fruit cups from the dining hall into small-scale composting bins for students’ dorm rooms, which may be more convenient than walking down to the ground floor of the residence hall where the large composting bins are often situated.

Convenience, as well as sustainability literacy, are considered main roadblocks to maintaining consistent sustainable behavior according to Kaufman, but drawing connections between a person’s eco-friendly actions and the direct impacts on others may bring the weight of their involvement into perspective. For students, the attempt to reconcile micro actions to address macro environmental issues can feel frustrating or even futile, but an individual’s sustainable choices and lifestyle can encourage a ripple effect through their peers and community.

“[The Office of Sustainability likes] to use this strategy that was created by an environmental psychologist called ‘community based social marketing’ … if you want to get someone from a specific population to adapt a specific sustainable behavior, part of how they will adapt that behavior is by thinking that they are part of a community that does that behavior,” Kaufman said.

Moreover, people may not consider the detrimental impact of improper waste and recycling habits on the workers on the other side of the equation, from the custodial staff to people at sorting facilities who must handle the waste items and contaminants, which pose both occupational hazards and an environmental justice issue.

“A very common thing in recycling is for people to say, ‘it all goes to the same place, I’ve seen that it all goes to the same place, I don’t want to recycle.’ If you know that person cares about, let’s say, social justice or racial justice, you can align incentives. You can say, ‘when you send your stuff to the landfill, landfills are disproportionately located next to low-income communities and it has negative public health impacts for those communities,’” Kaufman said.

Markowitz echoed the same sentiment.

“When we as Tufts produce a ton of waste this semester, we are giving even more than we normally do of waste to these underprivileged areas and I think that’s super important to keep in mind as we go about our daily lives here,” Markowitz said.