Lauren Sleeger, the director of Rathbone dining hall, estimates Upper Cort has reduced 95 percent of its polystyrene, or Styrofoam, materials.
The main hurdle in completely eliminating this plastic polymer sits in the far corner of Upper in the form of Pandini’s Italian Grille.
To overcome the specific challenge presented by Pandini’s, members of Lehigh’s Green Action club are working with dining services to find more sustainable alternatives.
Jason Lenig, the director of dining services, said although polystyrene is one of the cheaper options when it comes to plates and containers, the university is not concerned with the cost.
Lenig and Sleeger said the alternative to polystyrene is a compostable, corn-based product. Lenig said this alternative is currently used at the other Upper dining stations that serve hot food.
Sleeger said while she would like to immediately phase out polystyrene at Pandini’s, the temperature of the station’s food makes it difficult to find a sustainable solution.
“With Pandini’s, what we’re finding is the alternative isn’t working with the product,” Sleeger said.
To demonstrate how the alternative material is challenging for the Pandini’s staff to work with, Lenig cupped his hands as though they were holding pasta or a pizza, typical fare at the dining station. Lenig said the food served at Pandini’s can be much hotter than other stations at Upper Cort, and it could melt right through the plates.
“You’d see students pick up their food, and then splat!” Lenig said, flinging his hands into the air. “Not really what we’re going for.”
Sleeger said polystyrene materials have sometimes had to be used in Upper when Sodexo runs out of alternatives during peak hours.
“In those cases, unfortunately, it’s that or nothing,” Lenig said.
Andrew Goldman, ’19, the activism chair of Green Action, described the use of polystyrene in Upper as “unsustainable and impractical.”
Goldman said members of Green Action drafted their concerns to Lenig and have begun working with Sleeger to find solutions for Pandini’s.
“Polystyrene is an outdated and unnecessary material that poisons the environment,” Goldman said. “We need to move beyond it.”
Goldman said the relationship between Green Action and Dining Services has been “solid” in the past, and he praised Sleeger’s sustainable efforts.
Both Sleeger and Goldman referenced other sustainable practices dining services has recently implemented. In particular, Goldman mentioned EnviroPure, a food digester Sleeger introduced to Rathbone dining hall last year.
The machine provides an alternative to composting, which Sleeger said is not available in the Lehigh Valley.
Bruce Christine, the general manager of dining services, said polystyrene is already being partially banned in some cities, including New York and Washington D.C. He predicts the material will eventually be unavailable altogether.
“In my lifetime, I’d be willing to bet it,” Christine said.
Sleeger said dining services recognized the need to eliminate the remaining polystyrene and hopes to see the product completely gone from Upper by next semester.
“Green Action reached out, and we want to give them a solution,” Sleeger said. “We feel very confident that we’ll get there and that we’ll get there sooner than later.”