From shopping bags to knives, spoons and forks, all use-once-and-throw-away plastic items are being cut back or cut out completely at the University of Virginia.
After more than three months of study, UVa officials have begun to implement a plan to roll back the use of plastics on Grounds, be it in dining halls, libraries, administrative offices, laboratories or classrooms.
The move will bring the university in line with a March executive order signed by Gov. Ralph Northam that requires state agencies, including colleges, to stop buying, selling and distributing single-use plastic and polystyrene containers, including plastic straws, water bottles and bottled water.
State agencies must drop all single-use plastics by 2025, according to the order. The UVa plastics ban began last week.
“Single-use plastics are a ubiquitous part of everyday life, and our efforts to eliminate them will result in changes around Grounds at both the institutional and individual levels,” states an email to UVa staff and students from Jennifer “J.J.” Davis, UVa’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Colette Sheehy, UVa senior vice president for operations and state government relations.
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“However, given [plastic’s] destructive impact on our environment, and our waterways in particular, we agree with Gov. Northam that doing so is worth the effort,” the statement reads.
According to Northam’s order, “all executive branch state agencies, including state institutions of higher education, and their agency or agencies, shall discontinue buying, selling, or distributing these specific items: disposable plastic bags, single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws and cutlery.”
The order also eliminates use of single-use plastic water bottles not used for medical, public health, or public safety use.
That means that departments at UVa — be they academic, retail, residential, or administrative — will no longer purchase plastic items, although some existing inventory will continue to be used until it’s depleted, as allowed for in the governor’s order.
The university will phase out plastic water bottles and plastic bag liners over the coming year as much as possible, with significant reductions in plastic water bottles already being made.
The plastics proscription also will apply to disposable shopping bags. They will be replaced by reusable bags, paper sacks or nothing at all.
Single-use plastic water bottles up to 34 ounces should be replaced by refillable water bottles with tap water or filled at water bottle filling stations. Paper and aluminum containers are acceptable, according to UVa’s new standards.
Concessions and national-brand items with plastic containers will be phased out by December 2022.
“As we phase out plastic materials, we will introduce alternate materials that will be reusable, compostable, or otherwise more sustainable,” Davis and Sheehy wrote. “Community members will also see an increase in publicly accessible compost bins across Grounds to divert as much waste as possible.”
The school plans to decrease plastic trash by adding water stations around Grounds that will allow for the refilling of reusable bottles. Food and drink containers that can be composted will be more readily available, and more recycling and compositing bins will be set up for public use.
The use of trash bags and liners also will be reduced through more availability of containers.
Departments and divisions are expected to decrease plastic use and increase recycling, according to the UVa Office for Sustainability.
The sustainability office has led the effort to make the changes since March. More than 40 UVa organizations participated in a working group that researched how to implement the governor’s order. The group included officials from food services, athletics, UVa Health, procurement, facilities management, the UVa Bookstore, the alumni association, faculty and students.
According to UVa Sustainability’s recycling webpage, the university will collect for recycling aluminum and other metals, cardboard, electronics, glass, plastics labeled numbers 1 through 7 and office paper from sites around Grounds.
“Plastics numbers 3 through 7, which are separated on Grounds, are really being recycled,” UVa Sustainability’s website sates. “Our mixed plastics are being separated by the type of plastic and recycled by a contracted company in a material recovery facility in Raleigh, North Carolina. Our contract requires that all of our plastics will be recycled. Those plastics are being sent to mills in the Raleigh region.”
UVa’s 2030 Sustainability Plan includes a move to reduce the university’s waste footprint by 70%. That includes reducing single-use plastics and increasing landfill diversion.
“[Northam’s] order is a positive step toward making our whole commonwealth cleaner and our economy more sustainable,” Sheehy and Davis wrote. “It also aligns closely with the university’s own sustainability goals and work that has already been underway to reduce single-use plastics.”
UVa restaurants and dining halls already use compostable products, such as cold-beverage cups made of fermented plant starch and dinner plates made from sugar cane.
The new compost bins and signs will explain how to deal with specific products to minimize contamination of recyclables.
“We will provide further information as we develop additional strategies to reduce our waste and eliminate single-use plastics,” Sheehy and Davis wrote. “We are grateful to this entire community for helping us become a leader in this important effort to make our operations more sustainable.”