The Eco Container Program is a partnership between Student Auxiliary Services and Lehigh Dining. A sticker is placed on the back of the Lehigh IDs of students who participate in the program and are expected to return the containers after usage. (Jessica Mellon/B&W Staff)

Eco Container Program works to eliminate take out dining waste

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The Eco Container Program, a partnership between Student Auxiliary Services and Lehigh Dining, was expanded during the spring semester to allow students take a more sustainable approach to take out dining. 

At the start of the spring semester, all students with a meal plan were enrolled in the program and designated reusable to-go containers. The containers must be returned each time they enter a dining facility, in order to be swapped out for a clean one. 

Katharine Targett Gross, officer in the Office of Sustainability, said the program has been well received by students. 

There has been an adjustment period for a number of students who find the technicalities of the program difficult. For those who forget their containers, disposables are still available. 

The program has been available for students to opt into for several years, but has not been a requirement until spring 2021. The decision to enroll all students in the program was made in response to the overwhelming waste compiled from disposable containers last semester.

“Just last semester alone, we used and threw out 83,250 disposable clamshell containers,” said Lauren Sleeger, director of Rathbone dining. “If you were to open them up and spread them out, it would actually be the distance from Lehigh to Lafayette.”

Not only did the use of disposable containers amass a sizable amount of trash, but it was also costly and disrupted the school’s recycling program. 

“A lot of students last semester thought that their disposable clamshell containers were recyclable, which contaminates the recycling,” Gross said. “Lehigh dining spent $26,000 on the disposable clamshell containers last semester alone.” 

To investigate the tangible benefits of the program, Lehigh Dining is conducting a study to compare disposable container usage from the fall and spring semesters, the waste generated throughout both semesters and the loss rate of the eco-containers.

Those overseeing the program are hopeful that student compliance and participation will decrease the carbon footprint made by Lehigh Dining. 

“Our goal is to make sure that not only are students using the program to start with, but that they are remembering to bring their containers back every time, and that they are going beyond that to bring a reusable bag and actually investing in the program and seeing the benefits of it,” said Julia Patridge, an Eco Reps coordinator. 

With the widespread implementation of the program, reusable containers will remain a part of dining at Lehigh. 

Once in-person dining options are available, eco-containers will still be used for take-out options. Additionally, the Office of Sustainability hopes to expand the eco-container program to the retail options on campus, such as Upper Court and Hawk’s Nest. 

“Up until the pandemic, we never allowed disposable containers, so once COVID-19 is in our rearview mirror, disposable containers will never be an option again,” Sleeger said. “If someone wants to take out, they will use the reusable containers.”

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