Ordering destruction

Do you ever wonder what happens to your food waste when it magically disappears on the dish return at WU? Well, we found out when the dish conveyor belt broke down just a few weeks ago. In its place were trash cans and recycling bins filled with a pastiche of unsorted waste. Compostable to-go boxes stuffed the trash can while the contents of the recycling bin ranged from half-eaten chicken to ice cream cones. Notably absent was a bin for composting. Evidently, Duke’s food waste wasn’t being handled as I had once thought.

An overreliance on takeout boxes has hamstrung Duke Dining’s sustainability aspirations. While disposable containers are simple, flexible and reduce employee labor, they also generate an insane quantity of waste — that often goes unseen. Even if carryout boxes are made of compostable materials, a regenerative product cycle relies on users placing the containers in compost bins. Students don’t necessarily prefer to use takeout boxes but are often left with no other choice. Many dining locations only offer carryout containers and single-use utensils. The mobile order app, often used due to its convenience, does not allow users to choose reusable dining ware. Promoting reusable dining ware would reduce unnecessary waste and streamline Duke’s composting process.

In 2018, Duke Dining banned single-use plastics across campus. Instead, disposable products are made of polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable material derived from corn starch. While the ban was a significant step forward, PLA has its own drawbacks. PLA will only biodegrade under a specific set of conditions, meaning that it must be sorted out of the standard recycling stream. If a takeout container made of PLA ends up in a landfill, then it will take at least a century to decompose, resulting in potent methane emissions. In other words, for PLA to be truly biodegradable, it must first wind up in an industrial compost facility.

Often, that’s not the case.

In theory, the PLA waste cycle is closed, with the product’s end-of-life destination being compost, which can be used as an alternative fertilizer. However, the weak point in the loop is the user, who may or may not throw their to-go box in the compost bin. Data from the Duke Waste Audit shows that 58% of items in trash bins are actually compostable. Recycling bins aren’t that far behind at 48%. If one waste stream is too diluted with items that don’t belong in it, then the efficacy of the process is severely compromised. Furthermore, compost that is cluttered with non-compostable waste costs Duke extra to compost, disincentivizing the university from continuing the program.

This begs the question, why rely on compostable disposables in the first place?

The answer lies in changes made as a response to COVID-19. Since most students have no experience of pre-COVID dining, imagining pre-COVID Duke Dining can be difficult.

In short, COVID hit Duke Dining pretty hard. Marketplace was forced to shut down amidst a Covid outbreak among its employees. This led to long lines at replacement food trucks sent to East Campus and uncertainty around campus. To overcome these volatile conditions, Duke Dining expanded two of its key programs: mobile ordering and takeout containers.

While I couldn’t find out if the use of to-go boxes increased as a result of the pandemic, COVID has undisputedly changed our dining habits. During the pandemic, mobile orders made up 45% of sales across campus. Since the Duke Dine-Out app only allows for to-go orders, the number of single-use disposables has also risen.

Although the app has the phrase “Dine-Out” in its name, many students (myself included) use the app for meals that they eat in Wu. Why? The app allows you to skip long lines, often has more choices than are offered in person and frees up time to do other things. In effect, Duke is forcing students to choose between using mobile order or promoting sustainability.

However, these initiatives don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The mobile order app can be reprogrammed to allow the user to request a reusable plate and utensils. Students could now utilize the efficiency of mobile orders while also limiting the university’s waste footprint.

Well, won’t this plan suffer from the low participation rate that other Duke Dining sustainability initiatives experienced?

Currently, Duke Dining has both a Reusable Mug Program and a Reusable To-Go Container Program. You even get a 20% discount off your drink for ordering it in a reusable mug. Both programs are significantly underutilized due to a lack of awareness and high barriers to entry. I’m sure many students would love to participate but have never heard about either of the programs. Even for someone who knows about and wants to participate, enrollment is still challenging. For the reusable mug program, you must buy and remember to bring your own mug, as opposed to the vendor providing a mug for you. While reusable to-go containers are provided, I have filled out the form to enroll in the program and received no response. Promoting reusable dining ware requires a setup that is both simple and intuitive for students to use.

Sustainable dining at Duke is something that everyone wants. Small tweaks to the ordering and waste disposal process can go a long way in reducing disposable consumption.

First, Duke must require restaurants to offer an option of reusable dining ware. Many popular eateries such as Panera Bread, It’s Thyme and Pitchforks don’t offer reusable containers. Targeting the few locations that generate an outsized amount of waste will net the greatest impact.

Second, Duke should make ordering reusable dining ware an option on the mobile order app. Given the popularity of mobile orders, additional flexibility will increase accessibility to sustainable options.

Third, the current sustainable dining programs should be user-centric. Responding to sign-ups, advertising the benefits of the program and expanding the number of locations that participate in the programs will ensure their growth.

Just because our food waste is out of sight doesn’t mean that it should be out of mind. Let’s remind Duke that the best form of waste diversion is avoiding single-use disposables altogether.

Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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