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Students advocate for reusable food containers

“For here or to go?”

A common eatery question, diners can easily answer, “to go,” even if not eating on the run—now, campus groups have begun to investigate the problem and the overuse of these to-go containers.

Last Spring, Charlotte Clark, associate director of Education and Training at the Nicholas School of the Environment, taught a course that looked at the entire food production process. Five of her students were involved in a research project that worked on the issue of to-go container usage on campus. Their findings explored the possibility of  introducing reusable “clamshell” to-go containers.

“The team concluded that an ideal option would be for Duke to provide these new reusable clamshells because they (a) reduce the amount of waste generated, (b) mitigate the problem of customers “dining in” using to-go containers and (c) increase awareness on the campus,” said Clark.

There are several reasons why the non-reusable to-go containers have become so prominent on campus, said Environmental Alliance Co-president Ben Soltoff, a sophomore.

“It’s easier to hand out plastic—you don’t have to wash it or worry about it. And it’s more convenient,” he said.

Still, Soltoff noted that EA does view the use of plastic containers on campus as a real problem and the group is taking it into consideration. EA is also advocating for the introduction of reusable clamshells on campus instead of the single-use containers.

“This has never been implemented in a University of this size,” he said, “But we’re working on it.”

Clark’s students worked closely with Bon Appétit General Manager Nate Peterson to make the reusable clamshell idea a reality. Peterson is also working on the project in conjunction with others at the University, including Tammy Hope, quality assurance manager for Dining Services.

Peterson said he recognizes the problem of plastic containers, and is looking into a better way to slow the growth of diners habitually taking to-go containers even when they dine in.

“There isn’t one easy answer, especially the more you took into these things,” Peterson said. “We want to move forward on this, but we don’t want to start a program that isn’t fine-tuned.”

There is a possibility that the program will start this year, Peterson said, adding that he believes it could be a positive step for the University.

In the meantime, there are some short-term solutions to the problem of plastic containers, Soltoff said, noting that campus eateries do not ask the “for here or to go” question as often as they should.

“We want to encourage eateries to ask if you want [to-go containers] or plates,” said Soltoff.

Clark suggested an even easier solution.

“If you ask [for a plate], you can get a real plate,” Clark said. “Some people don’t realize they have the option when they really do.”

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