The Students' Union and the Office of Sustainability are encouraging MacEwan Student Centre vendors to trade unsustainable styrofoam containers for compostable alternatives.
Foamed and solid polystyrene, which are the technical terms for the styrofoam containers and plastic cutlery in MSC are not biodegradable.
The manufacturing process of foamed polystyrene uses petroleum and releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other green house gases. Once discarded by consumers, polystyrene either exists as litter or landfill mass.
According to SU vice-president operations and finance James Delaney, polystyrene will break down within 100 years if exposed to air and sunlight. However, this process breaks the polystyrene into styrene monomers which, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, are toxic and possibly carcinogenic to wildlife on ground and in the ocean. Polystyrene in landfills prolongs this hazard and creates excess waste.
"Most landfills are either buried in dirt or just otherwise protected from sunlight and air and in this condition polystyrene takes centuries to degrade, so it's a huge problem," explained Delaney.
In search of an alternative, Delaney discovered Calgary-based group Earth Distributors who offer corn-based and sugar cane-based options. In ideal compost conditions, this material takes less than 100 days to decompose into environmentally safe composites. As a result students can discard food-related garbage all into one bin.
"If you can put your fork into your container and throw away the whole thing into the compost bin that will eliminate a huge amount of waste on campus," said Delaney.
The corn or sugar cane-based material will then head to the Earth Tub, the Office of Sustainability's post-consumer compostable waste silo, and "degrade at the same rate as the food."
The only drawback is the cost.
"You can get 100 styrofoam containers for 20 cents but these are about five to seven cents each," said Delaney.
Over the next few weeks, Delaney will meet with MSC food court tenants to discuss possible arrangements and the increased cost. He suggested an awareness campaign informing customers that the tenants are complying with a student-driven initiative in exchange for tenants absorbing of the cost. The tenants, who act as individual operations, may also choose to charge the extra seven cents per meal.
Ary Hussein, owner of Opa! on the lower floor of MSC, estimates that he distributes 1,000 pieces of polystyrene a day. He was extremely receptive to the idea of replacing the styrofoam for a greener option -- so long as the SU can offer a deal like a rent subsidy. Hussein was critical of the idea of charging students.
"I would love to see actions from the bigger people, not only from the students. Why would the students pay for that?" Hussein said.
Third-year student Benaiah Agoye and fifth-year student Inelda Gjata were open to the idea of an incremental increase in food cost for the added service.
"It would be similar to reusable shopping bags, paying a little more would be worth it in the long run," said Gjata.
"Depending how much you eat out and buy stuff at school -- it would add up over the years," remarked Agoye, adding too much of an increase could pose difficulties.
Whatever the arrangement turns out to be, Delaney emphasized that he'd like to see the choice left up to students.