Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, operations across all segments of noncommercial were moving full-steam ahead with sustainability efforts, whether to comply with local regulations, meet consumer demands or otherwise.
But has the coronavirus thrown a wrench in those earth-friendly plans, as eateries look to welcome back diners in a world that’s become more concerned with safety than sustainability, at least in the short term?
A number of foodservice operations had already been working to strike a delicate balance between convenience and sustainability: Diners in recent years have pushed for more to-go options, which often translates to the use of more packaging, while at the same time voicing concerns about the environment.
Prior to the outbreak, U.S. college students said that they were taking food to go nearly half of the time (44%) that they ordered it, and 42% said they wished more on-campus eateries would deliver, according to Technomic’s 2019 College & University Consumer Trend Report. However, per that same report, over half of students (52%) also said they wished their school would slash its plastic waste by getting rid of single-use vessels like straws and cups.
As colleges across the country announce their strategies for reopening safely in the fall, some have said their dining halls will use disposable servingware and utensils, and others are offering food for takeout only. Yet in spite of those changes, many have no plans to turn back the clock when it comes to sustainability efforts and are seeking environmentally friendly options to fulfill their packaging needs.
“We remain committed to avoiding use of Styrofoam, preferring products that degrade more quickly or easily, are made from post-consumer recycled products, or recyclable products,” Laura Lapp, vice president of culinary, wellness and sustainability for Northwestern University Dining, recently told FSD.
She also said that the Evanston, Ill., university is looking at ways to move forward with a reusable container program, a pre-COVID staple on many a college campus: “We are working to ideate creative ideas to utilize a reusable container system and still maintain track of it, so that students return a dirty empty container and pick up a clean one on their next visit.”
In some of Sodexo’s eateries at business and industry sites, opening back up safely means that compromises on sustainability will have to be made, said Joe Ganci, president of Sodexo corporate services for the Eastern half of the U.S., adding that sustainability goals should still be kept in mind. During phase 1 of the company’s Rise with Sodexo reopening program, Sodexo operations will serve only menu items that are prepackaged, including sandwiches, salads and some hot entrees, and most will rely on single-use utensils.
“Operators may be losing sight of sustainability and making compromises now, but it’s temporary,” said Bill Corbett, executive chef for software company Salesforce, during the Culinary Institute of America’s recent virtual Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit.
Corbett also said he thinks the coronavirus outbreak has spurred more sustainability awareness among consumers, noting that “they are seeing how much waste is produced from shopping and cooking more frequently.”