Last fall, Dining Services decided to work towards a more environmentally
friendly way of disposing of waste. Beginning this quarter,
a new pilot program will see disposable dining ware in the RITz
Sports Zone being replaced by new, biodegradable options.
Currently, most cups and plates are made of (or lined internally
with) plastic or wax, which does not decompose. Said Gary Gasper, Director of Dining
Services, “Plates and cups are only really used for five minutes. After this, what can you
do? You have to throw them away. But they’re still going to be around forever, lying in
some garbage heap.” As a solution, the Ritz Sports Zone will now see the use of products
that are completely compostable. This means that they can be naturally recycled
into soil that is rich in nutrients through a process of gradual decomposition.
The current list of pilot biodegradable products includes cold drink and yogurt cups,
salad and take out containers, soup and coffee cups, French fry boats, and disposable
plates. These are made up of polylactic acid, which is a new breed of biodegradable and
compostable plastic produced by resin derived from renewable forest fiber that results
in paper-like products and other natural fibers such as corn, sugarcane, grass, and reed
plasma. Further, to discourage the use of plastic cups all over campus, students enjoy
a 10% discount on all beverages if they bring their own non-disposable cups.
Although the pilot program is now underway, there are still some issues to be worked
out. One major drawback of the use of products manufactured from polylactic acid is
that they cannot be used to serve hot foods and beverages or be microwaved. In fact, as
Gasper demonstrated, even pouring hot water into one such cup mutilates it into half
its size. Most importantly, the cost of producing one such renewable product (such as
a cup, plate, or container) is about two to three times that of manufacturing its nondegradable
Another factor affecting the implementation of this project is
the lack of nearby compost farms willing to compost products
made from these new substances, in particular those
made from polylactic acid. This is largely due to the comparatively
longer time required to compost polylactic acid
(about 180 days) as opposed to regular food scraps (60 days).
“However,” Gasper said, “efforts are continuing towards dealing
with these issues. In fact, we have already sent samples
to a few farms for experimentation.”
Other campuses around the nation have already begun becoming
serious about sustainability. At CalTech (Pasadena,
CA), dining ware made of corn plastic has been in use since
November of last year. Stores in CalTech now have biodegradable
corn bags. Boston University’s “Greening the Campus”
movement (http://www.bu.edu/green/) urges students
and teachers to reduce paper waste in classrooms, use travel
mugs for coffee, and describes how the University has practiced
Green Purchasing in 2004.
As good an idea it seems, there still remains significant scope
for expansion in the future. Gasper put in a final word: “We
need to do something about our throw away societal tendencies.
Every generation has a responsibility towards leaving the
earth in a better shape. Hopefully, this program should work
out, and the cost should come down eventually to allow adoption
of such practices and policies on a much wider scale.”