COVID-19 restrictions affect waste across campus


Carolyn Pallof | Senior Staff Photographer

All Pitt Eats locations still participate in the food recovery program and continue to donate surplus food to local agencies that fight hunger, diverting it from landfills.

By Elizabeth Primrose, For The Pitt News

Campus de-densification due to COVID-19 has led to numerous changes, including environmental ones.

Even though COVID-19 has impacted how the Pitt community operates this semester, students are still thinking about sustainable practices on campus. Maya Knee, the director of the Pitt Green Fund, said students are still focusing on sustainability during this time.

“It definitely hasn’t left the consciousness of students who are active in sustainability that we still need to be focusing on reusability,” Knee, a senior history and political science major, said. “It’s such an important time to stay active — especially now.”

Aurora Sharrard, Pitt’s director of sustainability, said Pitt has adjusted some of its sustainability habits due to the pandemic.

“The global COVID-19 health pandemic has obviously temporarily changed a number of practices on campus, locally and globally,” Sharrard said. “Most visible to students might be practices related to food distribution.”

Sharrard said due to COVID-19 precautions, dining locations no longer participate in the beverage or to-go container BYO programs that encourage students to bring their own containers to reduce waste. According to Sharrard, Pitt hopes to resume this program next semester and continue to work toward its goal, outlined in the Pitt Sustainability Plan, of serving half of to-go meals in reusable containers by 2025.

“One of our 61 sustainability goals is to serve 50% of to-go meals and beverages in reusable containers by 2025. That goal stands, regardless of COVID-19,” Sharrard said. “We have long offered a number of campus-wide BYO programs, including for beverages and to-go containers, both of which we hope will be back up and running in full in January.”

While on-campus dining locations do not currently participate in the beverage or to-go container BYO programs, some locations on campus still participate in the BYO[Bag] program. This program encourages people to bring their own shopping bag through instituting a $0.25 fee for plastic bags, according to the Pitt Sustainability website.

Despite not being able to bring their own containers to dining locations, Nick Goodfellow, the sustainability coordinator for business and auxiliary services, said the majority of single-use containers Pitt uses are compostable and made from plant-based products.

“In total, both by weight and volume, the majority of takeout dining containers, cups, napkins and utensils are compostable at Pitt,” Goodfellow said. “These are containers that are made of plant-based products — no oil, petroleum, plastic — and certified comestible by BPI, an industry standard that indicates the container is safe to compost in an industrial facility. Containers are developed from sugarcane or PLA — a plant-based plastic.”

The majority of these containers may be compostable, but some students find it challenging to compost. Robin Engelman, a first-year environmental science major, said she finds composting hard due to the difficulty of finding locations and the lack of collection sites in residence halls.

“It’s definitely been really hard to compost,” Engelman said. “Especially because info is hard to find and locations are closed because of COVID.”

Scott Bernotas, the associate vice chancellor for facilities management, said while compost collection still runs in select campus buildings this semester, residence halls may see these collection sites this spring. Currently the Barco Law Building, Benedum Hall, Eureka Building, Mervis Hall, O’Hara Student Center and the William Pitt Union all have composting stations.

“Compostable collection continues to run in select buildings campus-wide,” Bernotas said. “We intend to pilot residence hall collection in the spring 2021 semester.”

While the difficulty of composting leads students to throw away many items with their other non-compostable waste, Bernotas said the general de-densification of campus has allowed for a campus-wide decrease in waste production.

“Total campus-wide waste is lower,” Bernotas said. “Some areas like residence halls have increased versus last year due to sustained occupancy of these locations, while teaching and learning spaces have decreased.”

Since many Pitt employees are working from home this semester, the Office of Sustainability launched the Pitt Green Home Office Challenge. This challenge consists of a survey that provides participants with a score, Carbon Footprint Savings value and feedback on how they can better practice sustainability at home.

Even though the conditions of the pandemic have allowed for the extension of sustainable practices to the homes of employees, these conditions have prevented some sustainable activities from occurring on campus.

Some sustainability-related clubs, such as Students for Sustainability, are no longer active this semester. According to Students for Sustainability president Katelyn Meyer, the club will reevaluate its operating status for next semester sometime over winter break. Meyer said the service-based nature of the club would have made it too difficult to operate this semester.

SORC was telling us they really want everyone to operate remotely,” Meyer said. “And, for a service-based organization, that’s difficult.”

While not all sustainable practices, such as service projects, can take place this semester, all Pitt Eats locations still participate in the food recovery program, according to Goodfellow. He said this program has meaning to him, as it both diverts food waste from the landfill and aids community members in need.

According to Goodfellow, Pitt Eats has still been able to participate in the food recovery program, which gives surplus food to local hunger-fighting agencies.
“Not only does this food not go to landfill, it also gets delivered directly to community members who need it the most,” Goodfellow said.
While some may feel discouraged during the pandemic, Knee said she still wants to encourage students to apply for the Pitt Green Fund. For students looking to start a project, Knee said the Pitt Green Fund has a tab that provides ideas and resources for students. She said the Pitt Green Fund is adapting this tab to provide resources specifically for projects during the pandemic.

Even with all of the difficulties of the semester, Meyer said they are still moving forward and doing their best to promote sustainability.

“It’s cliché, but these really are unprecedented times,” Meyer said. “We’re all just doing our best to move through it and we’re just going to do our best to adapt next semester.”