University

All about plastic in the cafeteria

Sustainable? Kind of.

RUG catering company Beijk claims to prioritise sustainability. But the cafeterias at the university are stocked with plastic cups and cutlery. What gives?
By Remco van Veluwen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

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This clear cup might look like it’s extremely environmentally unfriendly, but it’s in fact made of corn starch. It should decompose completely.

This nice coffee cup is made of bamboo, corn starch, and a bit of resin binding it all together. The resin isn’t degradable, but everything else is. The lid and the sleeve (to make sure you don’t burn your fingers) are made of silicone. They’re not decomposable, but they are reusable.

The bread packaging is partially made of non-degradable plastic, which means it’s not decomposable. But once Beijk runs out of these, they’ll be replaced by square packaging made completely from paper.

This soup container is made from regular paper. That’s not that remarkable in and of itself, but the layer on the inside to prevent the soup from leaking through the paper is made of plant material.

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PhD candidate Marines du Teils e-mailed UKrant a few weeks ago. ‘I couldn’t help but notice that the cafeterias use A LOT of plastic cups. Some people use two or three cups for each meal. It would be great if people could be more conscientious in their use of plastic, but I don’t know how to encourage that change on my own. Maybe things will change if we make people more aware?’

Du Teils isn’t the only one who is concerned. UKrant receives messages like this – asking why the cafeterias use so much plastic – all the time. Why are there so many plastic cups? Doesn’t Beijk Catering, the company that run the cafeterias at the RUG, claim to provide ‘sustainable catering, using local suppliers and local, sustainable products’?

But in the cafeteria, plastic cups and cutlery about. What’s sustainable about that?

 You could throw the cups in your garden if you wanted to

‘Everyone gets their soup here, but we’re disappointed everything is made of plastic’, says legal administration student Corine Bartlema about the social sciences cafeteria. Sociology student Sofie Wiersma agrees. ‘Just look at all the waste that produces every single day. It’s such a shame. But because they don’t provide any ceramic bowls, we don’t have a choice.’ She doesn’t mind bringing her own cutlery. ‘But to bring my own bowl…’

Hot water

Things are not as dire as they appear, though. UKrant asked Christoffer de Vries with Beijk Catering about ‘all that plastic’, and he was more than happy to tell us what’s what. He walks into the Academy building cafeteria, grabs a plastic cup from the juice bar and puts it under a stream of hot water from a nearby tap.

In just mere seconds, the cup starts to shrivel and curl in on itself. ‘The cups are made from PLA, also known as corn starch. They’re not actually plastic.’

People don’t know this because to the naked eye, the cups are indistinguishable from normal plastic. De Vries had placards made that said ‘Attention: this object is made of corn starch’. People haven’t seemed to notice. ‘It’s completely biodegradable. You could throw the cups in your garden if you wanted to.’

It’s a step in the right direction, says pre-master student of international business Pelle Berkhout. ‘I didn’t know they were corn starch. I thought they were just good old-fashioned plastic. They might want to try and make that clear again, on Facebook or something.’

He’s not overly impressed, though. He remembers when Beijk Catering first took over the cafeterias two years ago. ‘I’m sure they’ll disagree, but I haven’t really noticed any change here at the Kapteynborg.’

Coffee cup

But De Vries says there have been several notable changes. He produces a white coffee cup with a red lid and the RUG logo printed on the side. ‘This is a reusable mug from the university shop. We want to encourage people to use cups like these, so we offer a 15 percent discount if they bring their own mug.’

The coffee cup is made from bamboo, corn starch, and resin. It’s an environmentally friendly way to prevent waste. It also enables people to contribute to making the cafeterias more sustainable. ‘We’re helping each other help each other.’

The disposable coffee cups at the cafeterias are made of sugar cane. Even the lids, which look so much like regular plastic, are made from this material. ‘We also have plates made from sugar cane, so people can still take a disposable plate if they want to eat outside.’

Beijk also still uses ceramic plates, but we’re not sure that’s any better than disposable plates. ‘It’s true that ceramic plates have to be washed a lot’, says De Vries. That also uses resources. ‘It also depends on which building you’re eating in.’

Cutlery

Then there’s the issue of the cutlery. In almost all cases, the cutlery is made of old-school plastic. When students and staff at the Bernoulliborg complained and Beijk took action, but they weren’t very successful.

 

Metal cutlery disappears like snow in summer

It’s a complicated issue, says De Vries. Beijk tried wooden forks and knives, ‘but people didn’t like the taste, so we stopped using those’. Washable, metal cutlery disappears like snow in summer. ‘People accidentally throw it away, or they take it home’, says De Vries. ‘I guess they need it for their own kitchen?’

Beijk recently purchased 1,500 pieces of stainless steel cutlery and distributed it across the various RUG locations. They still provide plastic cutlery, though. ‘That way people can decide for themselves whether or not to use plastic.’

Sofie is happy that Beijk is at least trying to make changes. But she feels like there they could do more than they are doing. ‘BSS currently has a temporary cafeteria set up in the basement, and they only have one dishwashing machine, so almost everything is made of plastic. I hope they make more of an effort once the new cafeteria is finished. This just doesn’t feel right.’

Lamentable

She thinks it’s particularly lamentable that people throw away the metal cutlery. ‘We’re so used to having it easy. People complain there’s no other way to do things, but there is: you could bring your own cutlery.’

Pelle also has his doubts. ‘The cafeteria keeps running out of metal cutlery, which means everyone to use the plastic stuff. I’ve seen this happen at the Kapteynborg, but at the Harmony building as well’, he says.

What else? The sandwiches are packaged in paper bags, but those still have plastic panes in them. Are they made from ‘real’ plastic? ‘That’s still the old packaging the RUG used to use. Once we run out we’ll start using packaging that’s all paper’, says De Vries. ‘The sandwiches don’t come pre-packaged; people can grab a bag if they want one.’

Sneeze guards have been installed at the cafeterias at the Kapteynborg and the Harmony building to allow for Beijk to sell sandwiches without packaging them. ‘But the cafeterias at the Academy building have a different layout and there isn’t enough space to install sneeze guards there’, says De Vries.

Coffee milk is mainly provided in jugs, although some locations still offer single plastic containers. ‘That’s intentional – it’s actually more sustainable because you might have to throw out the large containers if they go bad.’

 

Nederlands

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