Sustainable Packaging: College Dining Adaptations to COVID-19

Sarah Lyman, Director of Communications

Report by Chloe Birney, Audrey Dawson, Austin Slesinski

COVID-19 and the Increase in Dining Waste

Adaptations to the pandemic have largely resulted in an increase of disposable to-go packaging waste at universities. Institutions that reopened to on-campus students in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 provided more grab n’ go and takeout options so that students spent less time in dining halls. Concerns about potential disease transmission via reusable foodware, a concern now shown to be mostly unfounded, also drove decisions to use more disposable foodware and packaging. FINE and many of the dining staff in the FINE network are concerned about the potential to undo years of work by universities to eliminate waste in dining halls across the region. 

Read the Full Report

About This Project

This report was the result of a collaboration between Farm to Institution New England (FINE) and students in the Environmental Concentration capstone at Smith College in Spring 2021. It reveals a snapshot of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on to-go packaging and waste at college and university dining services and presents some best practices and resources for reducing waste during the pandemic and beyond.

The highlights and key findings shared below draw on the experiences of dining and sustainability directions from five higher education institutions in Massachusetts: Brandeis University, Harvard University, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Interview and quantitative survey questions were developed for understanding packaging waste operations and innovations prior to and after COVID-19. Responses from the interviews and survey were analyzed and synthesized into the charts, figures, and focuses that make up the report’s recommendations. 

Assessing the Growing Waste Problem

The full report showcases examples from each university demonstrating the impacts COVID on waste efforts. For example, at Brandeis, COVID-19 has uprooted common dining service sustainability practices and increased packaging waste. There were 33% fewer students on campus during Fall 2020 (approx. 2000) than during Fall 2019 (approx. 3000). However, the average student on campus during COVID-19 produced 10 pounds (lbs.) of packaging waste over the semester, compared to 1.4 lbs per student prior to COVID-19. The two rows of pie charts below show this 476% increase in food packaging waste at Brandeis University from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020:

Chart showing that Brandeis food packaging waste increased 476% during COVID-19, despite there being 33% fewer students on the meal plan.

At all universities, this waste needs to be sent off campus without overloading local facilities. However, not all facilities have the capacity to process compostable foodware at scale. For example, UMass Amherst had previously been sending commercially compostable containers to Martin’s Farm in Greenfield, MA until the facility could no longer process such large quantities. UMass Amherst dining services has since switched to recyclable packaging to avoid overloading locally composters. For additional background on the impact of COVID-19 on the five dining services interviewed, see section 0.4 Results of the report.

Key Findings

While the case studies we developed may not represent all regional dining service operations during the pandemic, the interviews did reveal three common focuses surrounding packaging waste best practices that are relevant to other institutions hoping to learn from these schools’ challenges and successes. 

1. Ready for Reusables shows that returns on the initial investment in reusable containers are fast and that reusables offer savings for institutional dining and businesses when compared to purchasing single-use products.

  • Reusable packaging programs reduce packaging waste associated with to-go dining operations. Tokens or credits are used to incentivize responsible student participation and avoid loss of reusable containers.
  • Students can be given a token/container, pay for a container, or pay a deposit to participate in reusable programs.

2. Optimizing for Disposables gives considerations for selecting the most sustainable single-use packaging in different situations where reusables are not feasible and presents tips for managing waste so that materials get properly handled by waste processing facilities.

  • Not all products that are marketed as compostable or environmentally friendly are locally manageable, and compostable materials can generate methane if they are sent to a landfill to anaerobically decompose. Check the capabilities of local composting and/or disposal facilities to make sure that purchased single-use products can be processed. 
  • Self-serve utensils at Smith College and Brandeis University encourage students to be more intentional about taking utensils. When students are not given utensils by default, this reduces the amount of unnecessary utensil packs that are given out.
  • Food packaging buyers should be educated about desired product certifications, brands, and on which labels can be misleading (e.g., biodegradable versus compostable). Navigating “greenwashed” marketing language when purchasing packaging is no simple task.
  • Avoid a mix of compostable and recyclable products, as this makes sorting waste more difficult for students and contamination of all waste streams more likely. Additionally, products that are easily identifiable as compostable or recyclable can minimize confusion when sorting.

3. Negotiating Sustainable Contracts presents Brandeis University’s work to introduce dining waste reduction sustainability goals into their new private dining contract.

  • Self-operated dining services may be interested in incorporating sustainability metrics into future dining service contracts or plans. In the report, we share lessons from Brandeis University and additional resources and examples for incorporating sustainability metrics in Requests for Proposals (RFPs). 

Food Packaging Best Practices

The report also highlights key takeaways with accompanying resources for dining and sustainability directors interested in reducing or evaluating packaging waste at their institutions, including:

  • Properly sanitized reusable containers do not increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission and are generally more sustainable than single-use options of any material.
  • Requiring or providing reusable bags for picking up to-go meals can reduce unnecessary paper or plastic waste.
  • Clear waste station signage and engagement on social media promote reusable packaging programs and encourage proper single-use container disposal.
  • Waste audits are useful for evaluating the effectiveness of waste management systems and current waste reduction efforts. 

Taking Action

Universities and other institutions will find actionable recommendations and more details in the full report. Additional information about developing RFPs and contracts can be found in FINE’s Food Service Toolkit. FINE will continue to explore issues connected to waste. We are currently working with Smith College on a project that will address toxins that may be found in compostable foodware. For the latest news, tools, and findings, please subscribe to FINE’s newsletter.

Read the Full Report

About the Authors

Three students at Smith College, Chloe Birney, Audrey Dawson, and Austin Slesinski, completed this report as part of the Environmental Concentration capstone course in Spring 2021. The students were advised by Smith faculty member Paul Wetzel. FINE’s Director of Research and Evaluation, Hannah Leighton, provided additional support. If you have any questions about this research or would like to support future research efforts on this subject, please reach out to Hannah Leighton at