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Friday, April 19, 2024 — Houston, TX

City health code bans reusable containers

By Hannah Che     11/18/14 3:49pm

Hannah Che

for the Thresher

A proposal to set up reusable take-out containers at the serveries has been prevented by the city of Houston health code, according to Housing and Dining Senior Business Director David McDonald. The objection rose from a concern about cross-contamination hazards. 



“The logic was, let’s say you have a cold, and you bring back a container that is contaminated,” McDonald said. “When you take food, the serving spoon touches the container, and when it is placed back into the food, it contaminates everybody else who’s going to get food that day. That’s what we call cross-contamination.”

McDonald argued the sanitary concern is unfounded because the reusable containers would be washed by H&D. 

“We’re professionals, and we’re certified,” McDonald said. “Since we’re washing the containers, the risk of contamination would be no different from the risk associated with using paper plates. We feel like we’ve taken the risk out of it, but [the health officials] didn’t see it that way.” 

The reusable containers would replace the current paper plates and greatly minimize both paper waste and cost, according to McDonald. The system was tested at the Faculty Club last year and seemed to work, but McDonald said logistical issues would arise from the greater demand at the serveries.

“There were concerns that the system would slow down lines,” McDonald said. “Also, that students wouldn’t like the idea of us charging five dollars at the counter to get the container, or the fact that they wouldn’t have paper plates.”

The University of Houston has a similar container system already in place, according to McDonald, but it follows a different health code.

“They’re governed by the state of Texas, because they’re a state school,” McDonald said. “As a private institution, Rice is governed by the city of Houston health code, which has one of the strictest set of food handling guidelines I’ve seen.”

McDonald said this container idea came three years ago from an ENGI 302 class project.

“Students wanted to see if the serveries could use reusable to-go containers instead of paper plates,” McDonald said. “How it would work is you would come in and say, ‘I want to-go today.’ Then I would charge you five dollars on your tetra points, give you a container and you’d get your food. When you returned the container, I would credit back the five dollars for the cost of the container or switch with you and give you a new clean container.”

Tierra Moore, the co-chair of the Student Association Environmental Committee, said a survey by the new student representatives last month found most students were in favor of the idea. 

“We collected over 270 responses from students and found that 80 percent of them would have liked to use this product,” Moore, a Baker College senior, said. 

Moore said that students cold contact city health officials to discuss setting up a special-case situation for Rice.

According to McDonald, the reusable containers are no longer being considered by H&D. However, students are allowed to bring in reusable bottles to fill with water and other beverages.

“The reason I can get away with that is because they’re dispenser style,” McDonald said. “So there is no cross-contamination hazard.”

McDonald said the reusable container proposal reflects broader issues about sustainability and the growing take-out culture on campus.

“The disposable paper plate usage just ticks up every year, and with the reusable containers, we’re primarily trying to mitigate this,” McDonald said. “But I think the best thing that could happen from a sustainability standpoint is to just stop using so much take-out. In the seven years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a huge increase in people taking out plates instead of eating in their commons.”

Moore said discussion stems back to the issue of how much student behavior can be controlled. 

“I don’t really think you can add [reusable containers] to the serveries and expect the takeout culture to decrease — I mean obviously it would facilitate the existing demand for takeout,” Moore said. “But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.”



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