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Virginia Tech progresses in reducing single-use plastic and solid waste

Virginia Tech
(© Andriy Blokhin – stock.adobe.com)

A host of operational and engagement initiatives aimed at reducing single-use plastic and solid waste are helping Virginia Tech make strides toward its Climate Action Commitment goal of becoming a zero-waste campus status by 2030.

Executive Order 77

Phasing out single-use plastics and polystyrenes – including disposable plastic bags, water bottles, and Styrofoam to-go containers – is of particular importance to Virginia Tech sustainability leaders in light of Executive Order 77: Leading by Example to Reduce Plastic Pollution and Solid Waste.

Signed into effect by Gov. Ralph Northam in March 2021, the order requires all state agencies and universities to cease buying, selling, and distributing disposable plastic bags, single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws, and cutlery, and single-use plastic water bottles. The executive order also requires these groups to develop a long-term Plastic Pollution Reduction and Waste Diversion Plan.

As of July 2021, all of Virginia Tech, including Virginia Tech Athletics, Virginia Cooperative Extension locations, and contracted food service vendors, ceased the purchase and distribution of polystyrene food service containers and started incorporating more sustainable alternatives into their offerings.

Longer term, Virginia Tech and its vendors will cease the purchase and distribution of plastic cutlery, straws, and drink stirrers by the end of December 2022. Virginia Tech and the Virginia Cooperative Extension are in the process of identifying and evaluating other viable alternatives for plastic cutlery, straws, and drink stirrers.

A cross-functional university working group continues to partner closely to address university-wide compliance with the order. The team submitted an initial implementation plan to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in July.

The working group includes stakeholders from Procurement, Dining Services, Housing and Residence Life, Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities, Athletics, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the Office of the Vice President of Research and Innovation.

Leveraging a strong culture of sustainability

Longstanding university waste reduction initiatives provide a strong jumping-off point for the fulfillment of the executive order.

“A focus to reduce single-use plastic and solid waste has long been incorporated among Dining Services’ sustainability goals. Virginia Tech’s self-operating dining facilities ceased the use of polystyrene containers in 2014-15 and national franchises on campus ceased using them in 2018,” said Blake Bensman, sustainability manager for Dining Services and Housing and Residence Life.

“Free reusable to-go containers are available to all students, making dining on the go easy – and green. We estimate over 200,000 meals have been served in reusable to-go containers to date, keeping thousands of pounds of packaging waste out of landfills.”

In addition to providing key contributions to the Virginia Tech executive order working group, Bensman also shares his sustainable dining and sustainable packaging expertise with state-level environmental leaders in the DEQ.

Like reusable food containers, Dining Services offers reusable water bottles at dining facilities for visitors to purchase. The single-use plastic eliminators can be refilled at water bottle refill stations in residence halls, dining facilities, academic buildings, and a myriad other locations.

Recycling receptacles containers can be found throughout academic, residential, dining, and administrative buildings, along paths, and in parking lots across the Blacksburg campus. Community members can recycle cardboard, plastic, paper, cans, electronics, and more into the containers. The quantity of containers continues to expand through the student-generated sustainability projects submitted through the Green RFP Program.

Composting containers are also available in many dining halls. For the last 11 years, Dining Services has sent more than 11 million pounds of food waste and biodegradable food packaging to Virginia composting facilities, where it’s converted to farm, garden, and landscaping products.

Comprehensive Waste Management Plan

Virginia Tech achieved an 85.2% waste diversion rate (waste diverted from the landfill) and a 38.1% recycling rate in 2020. The national recycling rate is around 32%. In November 2020, the EPA announced the overall national recycling goal of increasing the U.S. recycling rate to 50% by 2030. This goal will provide a benchmark to evaluate the success of the collective efforts to improve the nation’s recycling system.

To improve upon this data at Virginia Tech, the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities published a new Comprehensive Waste Management Plan in February 2021. The plan outlines clear operational and educational pathways for advancing university waste management goals.

Waste streams at Virginia Tech include municipal solid waste, construction and demolition waste, recyclable materials, compostable materials, reusable materials, electronic waste, universal waste, hazardous waste, and more.

Student engagement in reducing plastic and solid waste

Student engagement remains another mainstay in the university’s waste reduction efforts.

Office of Sustainability intern teams raise awareness around environmental topics like recycling at events throughout the year like Gobblerfest and Earth Week. In 2021-22, intern teams will be publishing a zero-waste event guide for use by clubs and organizations. It will provide event planners helpful tips and resources around purchasing, recycling, giveaways, and much more.

A new compostable utensils pilot program – catalyzed by a student-generated Green RFP project – is also underway in dining halls this semester.

The 2021-22 Green RFP program submission period will launch on Sept. 20, providing students a unique opportunity to submit waste reduction and sustainability project ideas to be implemented on the Blacksburg campus. Information about the application process will be shared via a campus notice in VTx in the coming days.

Game Day Green Tailgate volunteers attend Virginia Tech home football games to pass out blue recycling bags in high-impact parking lots surrounding Lane Stadium and educate tailgaters around recycling practices.

Say hello to the Game Day Green Team – and remember to recycle – at home football games this season. Photo by Sarah Myers for Virginia Tech.

How to get engaged

There are countless opportunities for university members to further Virginia Tech’s waste reduction efforts. When possible, strive to commit to the “3 R’s” principle –  reduce, reuse, and recycle – in your own office, residence hall, and home. Refer to the resources below for more ways to get engaged at Virginia Tech.

Email sustainability@vt.edu with additional questions.

Virginia Tech and local sustainability, waste reduction resources (in alphabetical order)

Additional Executive Order 77 details

State agencies are also required to submit a long-term plan for Plastic Pollution Reduction and Waste Diversion by Sept. 21, 2021. Virginia Tech is on track to submit this plan, which includes a 25 percent annual reduction for items like plastic food containers, bags, and water bottles beginning Dec. 31, 2022.

The executive order allows exemptions for certain items related to public health, safety, research, and medical purposes. Virginia Tech is working with state partners to further define these criteria.

The latest Executive Order 77 implementation updates and FAQs can be found here.