New project promotes safer, sustainable to-go food packaging 

The University of Illinois Chicago will lead a new initiative to help restaurants in underserved communities and at minority-serving institutions, like UIC, switch to safe and sustainable food packaging. The project is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Food packaging and containers are a significant challenge for society. Many are intended for just a single use before disposal. Some are made from materials — including polystyrene and plastic — that contain PFAS chemicals, which are linked to harmful health and environmental effects.

Ning Ai, associate professor of urban policy and planning. (Photo by Martin Hernandez, UIC)

With a new grant from the EPA, Ning Ai of the UIC College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs and the Institute for Environmental Science and Policy will lead an effort to assist minority-owned restaurants and minority-serving universities in Illinois, Michigan and northern Indiana with this transition.

Despite increasing awareness about the drawbacks of packaging containing PFAS chemicals, many obstacles remain for businesses and institutions to switch to safer, sustainable packaging, particularly in under-resourced communities, Ai said.

Working with the Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and other regional and national partners, the project will use research, technical assistance, education and outreach to encourage the use of reusable and compostable packaging. 

“As one of the most inclusive research-intensive universities in the United States, UIC is proud to be at the forefront of research that is inspired by, connects with and empowers diverse communities,” UIC Chancellor Marie Lynn Miranda said. “This grant stands as a testament to our unwavering commitment at UIC to leading, innovating and promoting environmental justice and sustainability.”

The financing for the UIC project was awarded as part of the EPA Pollution Prevention Grant: Environmental Justice Through Safer and More Sustainable Products, funded by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The program chose projects that will improve human health and the environment in underserved communities by reducing the use and release of hazardous substances.

The core of the project will be technical assistance to help businesses and organizations overcome barriers to using sustainable packaging. Ai said the team will take a systemwide approach and work with stakeholders at all levels of food service, from suppliers and distributors to restaurant owners and composting operators.

Listen to story summary.

Cost is often the largest hurdle for businesses, Ai said, particularly in underserved communities. But other issues such as concerns about customer response, performance or lack of access to vendors with sustainable products also could interfere with a transition to safer food packaging.  

Researchers also will survey consumers to assess their preferences for PFAS-free and sustainable dinnerware relative to increased costs. Ai hopes this data will help provide a “green nudge” that influences more businesses to change their packaging. 

“We are focusing on the process of trying to better understand the barriers and challenges together with the technical-assistance recipient,” said Ai, associate professor of urban planning and policy. “We found this great opportunity to combine research and practice to solve a real problem in society.”

The project also might include peer learning through webinars and events, promotional campaigns to increase awareness of PFAS in food packaging and remote technical assistance to help institutions and restaurants plan and troubleshoot their transition to safer, sustainable food packaging. 

Students sit at tables eating lunch in a round room with wooden rafters and a round stained glass window in the center.
Students dine in the Inner Circle dining hall at UIC Student Center East. UIC Dining Services is a partner on the EPA-funded project. (From Amazon Prime’s “The College Tour“)

UIC Dining Services, which offers 29 dining options at 14 campus locations, is a participant in the EPA-funded project. UIC’s Planning, Sustainability and Project Management department also will support the project by engaging the campus community. 

“UIC is in a position to serve as a role model for other minority-serving institutions or urban campuses,” Ai said. “We are such a large public university, with far-reaching impacts on society. If UIC can conquer these complex institutional, logistical and financial barriers, I think this is going to be very inspiring for other institutions.”

The project resonates with the college’s commitment to building just, resilient and livable communities and the university’s mission of community engagement, said Stacey Swearingen White, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. The grant also comes at a fitting time, the 50th anniversary of the Department of Urban Planning and Policy in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.

“I am confident that this work will inspire further endeavors that demonstrate the vital role of social sciences and interdisciplinary approaches in advancing collective aspirations and sustainability efforts,” White said.

The work also reflects the mission of the UIC Institute for Environmental Science and Policy, which facilitates collaborative research, scholarship and service that supports a sustainable environment.

“UIC’s Institute for Environmental Science and Policy has had a longstanding commitment to Ning Ai’s research and enthusiastically supports her new EPA award, which exemplifies the institute’s core mission of interdisciplinary, collaborative research and community engagement,” institute director Tom Theis said. “This initiative showcases our approach to addressing complex challenges at the intersection of science, policy and societal well-being.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email