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Students express concerns over impact of single-use items in UNC dining halls

UNC-Chapel Hill's dining halls' need for disposable cutlery and plates has raised concerns over the environment impact of new COVID-19 precautions.

Carolina Dining Services reinstated its reusable container program for takeout at campus dining halls one week after the start of the fall semester — after months of dishing out disposable plastic and compostable containers. 

By the time this change was made, UNC had already announced the occupancy on campus was reduced to 64 percent and just before the University asked students to cancel their on-campus housing contracts.

CDS said in an email via Stephanie Berrier, a member of the communications team for UNC's Division of Finance and Operations, that the transition to single-use items in March stemmed from uncertainty at the outset of the pandemic. 

“This operational change and other safety protocols were based on recommendations by health officials at a time when there were still many unknowns about COVID-19 and were in keeping with industry best practices," CDS said in the email. 

But students and student groups are concerned with how CDS handled its services and the impact of single-use products. 

Kenaz Flores is the historian for the environmental group Carolina 360.

“Not only is the production unsustainable, but the continuous transportation to UNC adds to our carbon footprint, along with the disposal of the cutlery,” Flores said.

As a result of COVID-19, CDS also offered delivery and retail to-go options. In addition, food truck options were expanded to offer over 12 trucks throughout campus, Monday through Friday. This was all in an effort to de-densify UNC’s indoor dining hall seating.

“Customer and staff safety will always remain the top priority, especially during this global pandemic,” CDS said in an email. “Changes made to dining facility operations in response to COVID-19 have followed current health guidance and industry best practices and will be continually updated based on further guidance from the CDC and the Orange County Health Department.”

Flores said UNC and CDS could have better promoted alternate sustainable options, including encouraging students to bring their own cutlery or use what was offered in their dorms.

“I do think UNC tried their best given the circumstances, but small things like encouraging students to take their own sustainable steps do make a big difference,” Flores said.

Reagan Jarrett, a first-year environmental studies major, agrees that proper disposal education is a key component to single-use items as well. 

“UNC’s use of compostable trays and dish ware, while at least seemingly holding good intentions toward sustainability and focusing on a low waste initiative, will never be as environmentally efficient as multiple-use dish ware,” Jarrett said. “They were largely still being thrown in the trash, making the compostable feature nearly useless.”

Colleges across the state dealt with COVID-19 dining accommodations in different ways. North Carolina State University also turned to single-use disposable items. 

“I understand the importance for safety and cleanliness due to the pandemic, which is why this is a difficult topic,” Flores said.

These single-use products can still harm the environment, Jarrett said.

"Any form of single-use disposable material can be problematic and harmful because there is always opportunity for it to interrupt the natural landscape that its litter will inevitably become a part of," Jarrett said. 

CDS said they do not expect the change to single-use products to have a sizable impact on the carbon footprint of the school.

“The single-use silverware and dishes are compostable and manufactured from fiber that remains after the extraction of the sugar-bearing juice from sugarcane," CDS said in an email.

Some students, like first-year Mia Foglesong, are unsure of the larger impact of CDS’s choice. Foglesong is working to found UNC’s Sunrise Movement chapter, a national voter encouragement and climate change fighting organization. 

Flores said that, while the use of single-use products during COVID-19 extends beyond just UNC. 

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“This isn’t just a UNC problem, this is a world problem,” Flores said. “We’ve got thousands of people every day going into restaurants and taking a plastic fork and knife on their way out, along with the plastic containers they get their food in. Plastic is also really hard to recycle, especially cutlery because of its small size.”

CDS said it plans to continue their sustainability efforts in the future.

“Based on the feedback we have received, students have expressed appreciation for the return of the reusable containers,” CDS said. “CDS welcomes the opportunity to reintroduce this popular program that supports our commitment to campus sustainability.”