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Dining on College Campuses During the COVID-19 Pandemic

About a month ago, we announced that we were going to host a digital discussion for campus sustainability staff called “Zero Waste Strategic Planning During COVID-19”. We framed the conversation as a space to come together to discuss the following questions:

  • “How do we maintain momentum towards zero waste goals while campuses aren’t active?”
  • “How can we use this time while students aren’t physically on campus to map out long-term strategies for our programs and projects when we get back?”

In the sign-up form, we asked staff to share what their projects currently look like while they are working from home, and what concerns they have about ongoing zero waste efforts. In total, over 250 campus staff signed up, causing us to schedule 2 additional overflow sessions! Many staff responded positively, saying they felt that the pause of day-to-day operations created an opportunity for strategic implementation. For example, one staff member said:

“I actually feel like this is a good time to implement a lot of our zero waste plans…people are expecting things to be drastically different when campus officially reopens, so if we implement changes now and are ready when campus gets back to full swing, then it will be easier to get people on board.”

However, we also received an overwhelming number of responses from staff concerned that, when their campuses do re-open, dining halls will have switched back to disposables out of fear that reusables could further the spread of the Coronavirus. For example, one staff member said that they were:

“concerned about continuing fears that may lead dining to go all-disposable in the near future (and what is the science behind that, anyway? why is disposable seen as safer than in eat-in dining?)”

We decided to try to answer this question, and provide campuses with guidance on next steps.

Are Reusables Safe?

The short answer is that standard sanitization practices that all food service facilities follow for cleaning and sanitizing reusable dishes – those required by the U.S. FDA Food Code – are enough to safely eliminate the risk of spreading the Coronavirus. In a typical sit-down restaurant, there should be no concern around the use of reusable dishes. In their reopening guidance, the FDA and CDC have not recommended that food service facilities switch to disposables. Additionally, many trade associations for the food service industry (like the National Restaurant Association), and companies that work in food safety (like EcoLab), have provided guidance to the food service industry on reopening and they all have indicated that reusables, when properly washed and sanitized, are safe. Finally, most states in the U.S. have released specific guidance to restaurants that are reopening, and none of them have required facilities to make the switch to disposables.

However, for college campus dining facilities, the situation may be a bit more complicated. Dining facilities will need to check with local health boards to understand new guidance that varies by state and locality. They will also need to consider new social distancing measures for dining halls that are typically extremely crowded, and possible re-designs to self-serve beverage and bulk bin stations, salad bars, buffets, and dishware collection systems. 

To help campuses navigate the complexities of these new systems, we created a Reusables and Sanitation Toolkit. The toolkit contains references to 14 key resources, including guidance from the FDA, the CDC, the National Restaurant Association, ServSafe, EcoLab, and a handful of scientific journals. We are also tracking State by State Guidelines for Reopening Restaurants as they are released.

What’s Next?

Join the Conversation: If you want to join the next Zero Waste Strategic Planning During COVID-19 session, we are holding another one on Tuesday, May 26th, at 3pm EST. Please sign up here

Stay Connected: We created a google group for campus staff to share resources and guidance related to reuse and sanitation. If you would like to join the group, you can sign up here

Help us learn: If you have any questions about the resources shared here, or about zero waste efforts on your campus, please feel free to reach out to us at any time at

If your campus is committed to keeping reusables, please reach out to us. We are putting together a list of campus case studies and we would love to include you!