Students eat in the Cather Dining Center on Sunday, Feb 2, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

With increased to-go options at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln dining centers, packaging waste has increased.

Kat Woerner, junior natural resource and environmental economics, economics and environmental studies triple major and sustainability specialist at the Office of Sustainability, said in an email that the COVID-19 pandemic increased the amount of waste people create in general. 

For example, Woerner said more people are getting takeout and fewer people are eating in restaurants, which creates more plastic, paper and all-around waste. 

At UNL dining centers, Woerner said most people are getting their food to go, which increases the amount of plastic silverware, food containers and beverage containers used. Woerner said even when people eat in the dining centers, there are limited options for reusables, unless the individuals bring their own utensils, like a water bottle or silverware.

Pam Edwards, assistant director of Dining Services, said the staff hopes the amount of food waste has gone down since they are serving specific amounts of food in the to-go containers. 

The COVID-19 pandemic created many setbacks in reducing people’s waste footprint, according to Woerner. Woerner said many industries and businesses are moving to single-use items to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines, even though reusables are safe and unlikely to spread the coronavirus. 

UNL’s Dining Services has put limits on the number of food containers students, staff and faculty can have, according to Edwards. For example, Edwards said no one is allowed to take three big grab and go containers; they are only allowed to take up to two.

Edwards said the staff’s main priority is to keep everyone safe, but they are still being mindful about creating less waste.

“I think this has heightened our awareness and how it can pile up,” Edwards said. “Hopefully when [the pandemic] is over, it will have a positive impact on us to be more mindful of it.”

Woerner said individuals reducing their own waste helps decrease the amount of waste created overall.

“All we, as consumers, can really do at this point is ask,” Woerner said. “Ask businesses if they have reusable plates, cups, silverware, etc. Ask to leave out plasticware with your to-go meals. Ask if, instead of styrofoam, they have a compostable or recyclable option.”

Woerner said UNL Dining Services staff has been working on implementing OZZI containers, which are reusable, to reduce the amount of packaging waste. Woerner said this effort started last year, but with the coronavirus pandemic going on, she is unsure of the project’s status.

“They were planning on working with Sustain UNL to implement it at the beginning of the semester, but I’m not too sure where that is right now,” Woerner said.

The Office of Sustainability has met with Dining Services staff on the issue of food and packaging waste, but with the pandemic, the dining staff needs help from UNL students.

“If we want change, we, as students, need to step up,” Woerner said. “Dining has the ideas, but they don’t have the people to implement them. If students want to work on this, they should contact us at the office and we will be more than willing to work with them.”