Reducing Waste from To-Go Meals

Due to COVID-19, MDining has had to adapt their operations for public safety and serve meals to-go. This has been a huge change given that they serve approximately 95,000 meals in a single week. They have done a great job ensuring that as much of the packaging as possible is compostable. But understandably, even with compostable packaging, this method of meal service is generating more waste than reusable dishware and cutlery traditionally would.

Until we can safely return to more typical operations, there are a few important things you can do to reduce your to-go meal waste and help contribute towards our 2025 campus sustainability goal of reducing waste sent to landfill by 40%. 

Bring a Reusable Bag

Environmental Health and Safety guidance has changed since the semester began, and now students are allowed to bring their own reusable bags when picking up to-go meals. Based on the observations of our Planet Blue Student Leaders, it seems that about 50% of students are using reusable bags when picking up their meals instead of single-use bags. This shift has already been shown to visibly reduce waste across campus and encourage proper sorting of the rest of the to-go packaging items for disposal (more on that in a minute!). 

Several thousand reusable bags were donated by Meijer (thanks Meijer!) to help provide students with a reusable option, but supplies of those are limited. So, if you have a reusable bag, don’t take an extra from the dining staff if they offer you one. Just say a quick, “Thanks, but I already have a bag, so you can save that one for someone else!” Also, if you already have an extra reusable bag, see if your roommate could use it! Bags with a flat bottom that can hold food containers level are best (maybe don’t try a drawstring backpack for this particular purpose or you might end up with some unfortunate clothing stains!). Lastly, if you forget your reusable bag, don’t feel obligated to take a paper bag. You can skip using a bag altogether if your hands are free. 

Poster encouraging the use of reusable bags

Properly Dispose of To-Go Packaging

Regardless of the bag you use, there are going to be other packaging items you need to dispose of properly from any to-go meal. Below we have included a graphic that should help you “know where to throw” the various Mdining items. Also, you can use the Office of Campus Sustainability’s new “know where to throw” search tool if you have any questions about other items. While it may not feel like you are reducing your waste by sorting your items properly, what this does is make sure that our compost and recycling streams are clean and ready to be transformed into either nutrient-rich soil amendment or new recycled-content items. 

Many packaging items are compostable, and these will typically be marked as such. And, all napkins are compostable too! Yes, even ones that are bright maize and blue (or other colors too – we’re ok with other napkin colors in our compost bins even – gasp – scarlet or grey napkins). All food waste (yes all of it) is also compostable. Although, you should eat as much of the tasty food you take from the dining halls as you can rather than disposing of it! Our compost goes to a large, commercial facility, so we don’t have to worry about dairy or meat like you would in a backyard compost pile. 

The plastic containers that you see in the graphic below must go in the landfill bins on campus (instead of the recycling bins) for two reasons: 

  1. They will have food on them which could contaminate the rest of the recycling stream. 
  2. They are too flat to make it through the sorting system at our material recovery facility (A MRF is just what we call the facility where our recyclables go). Because they are flat, they would most likely end up contaminating the paper stream rather than being grouped with the other plastics. 
Poster showing what bin different waste items should be disposed in

With that, you should now feel confident in reducing waste from to-go meals. If you have other ideas, feel free to share them in the comments below. And, if you have any questions, remember you can always email planetblue@umich.edu

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