Even though university officials have worked to promote green initiatives on the campus, that goal may be difficult to accomplish in the Stamp Student Union food court, where affordability often outweighs sustainability in large-scale restaurant chains.
Many vendors use containers made of polystyrene foam, which is lightweight and retains heat, but cannot be recycled. While Dining Services is encouraging some vendors to switch to environmentally friendly alternatives, other materials cost more, which would drive up food prices — a move many simply aren’t willing to make.
“They’re on board philosophically, but a lot of this costs money that they don’t want to pass on to the students,” said Joe Mullineaux, Dining Services senior associate director.
While Moby Dick uses bagasse, a compostable sugar cane-based material, Panda Express and Chick-fil-A both use polystyrene products. If Panda Express replaced its containers with more sustainable ones — which Dining Services suggested to the restaurant — prices would go up an average of 25 cents per product, Mullineaux said. And many students said that increase would be enough to deter them.
“I’m a college student on a budget,” said Daniela Salinas, a junior sociology major. “Considering they’re going green, it’s good, but it affects people’s pockets.”
Additionally, it’s difficult to change the behavior of businesses that have thousands of locations around the world, Mullineaux said. Although businesses that have thousands of locations around the world, Mullineaux said.
Although Dining Services is working to encourage businesses to go green, it’s ultimately up to the corporations to decide how much effort they’re willing to make.
Stamp officials said they will consider sustainability when deciding whether to renew contracts with certain businesses, said Steve Gnadt, Stamp associate director, but there are many other factors to take into consideration. Most importantly, potential food vendors must be willing to operate in Stamp, where business slows significantly during summer and winter breaks, he said.
The switch to green containers won’t make enough of an impact to justify the price, said Kyla Ramdat, a junior geography major. Instead, students would flock to other businesses with similar products and lower prices.
But some students said they wouldn’t mind paying a little extra if it meant increased sustainability.
“It’s a small price to pay for a healthy earth,” said Tony McMannis, a junior math major.
While packaging composes a small percentage of the university’s carbon footprint, Mullineaux said, it’s still visible — and every small change will help the university become more sustainable.
The Maryland Food Collective on the lower floor of Stamp takes steps to reduce waste by using compostable plates and bowls and offering customers a 10 percent discount when they bring their own to-go containers, said Kiera Zitelman, a manager at the co-op and a senior environmental science and policy major. Providing customers incentives to use their own containers would be a simple way for other businesses to reduce waste, she said.
“It would be a step in the right direction, and it’s something they could do today,” Zitelman said.
Ultimately, the decision comes down to what students want, Mullineaux said. Student feedback is gathered by guest counts at the various restaurants and through surveys conducted by Stamp officials. Online feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, he said.
Using non-sustainable products, however, typically isn’t enough to keep Stamp from extending restaurants’ contracts. McDonald’s, whose contract is set to expire in about two years, uses polystyrene foam among other non-sustainable materials, but its low prices are attractive to students, meaning Stamp will likely renew its contract.
As the food industry focuses more on sustainable practices, Mullineaux said, it will become easier for franchises in the food court to change their practices.
“We are trying to work with them,” Mullineaux said, “to find creative ways in their best interest to go with what’s most environmentally sound.”