UVA Reduces Single-Use Plastics on Grounds

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In the Mike Nichols film “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock has a brief but iconic conversation with Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke), an older family friend giving unsolicited business advice:

“I just want to say one word to you, one word.”

“Yessir.”

“Are you listening?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Plastics.”

If Hoffman’s character had indeed invested in plastics in 1967, when the classic movie was released, now might be a good time to get out.

There will be far fewer plastics in the future of the University of Virginia, as it cuts back on its use of single-use plastics starting July 21.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order in March requiring state agencies to stop buying, selling and distributing plastic and polystyrene food service containers, single-use plastic straws and cutlery, disposable plastic bags and single-use plastic water bottles by July 21, and to phase out all single-use plastics by 2025.

“This order is a positive step toward making our whole commonwealth cleaner and our economy more sustainable,” said Jennifer “J.J.” Davis, UVA’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Colette Sheehy, senior vice president for operations and state government relations, in a joint statement. “It also aligns closely with the University’s own sustainability goals and work that has already been underway to reduce single-use plastics.”

One goal in UVA’s 2030 Sustainability Plan is to reduce the University’s waste footprint by 70% by 2030 relative to 2010 levels, which includes reducing single-use plastics and increasing landfill diversion, an effort at UVA that dates back more than 10 years.

According to Davis, the University will no longer purchase single-use plastic bags, plastic cutlery, plastic food containers and plastic straws beginning July 21. Some existing inventory will be used until depleted. The University will phase out plastic water bottles and plastic bag liners over the coming year to the extent possible, with significant reductions in plastic water bottles by July 21.

“As we phase out plastic materials, we will introduce alternate materials that will be reusable, compostable or otherwise more sustainable,” Davis said in her statement. “Community members will also see an increase in publicly accessible compost bins across Grounds to divert as much waste as possible.”

Many of the on-Grounds dining facilities have already stated converting.

“Within UVA Dine, the Castle is a ‘3-Star Certified Green Restaurant’ and zero-waste space, where all materials are compostable,” Andrea Trimble, director of the UVA Office for Sustainability, said. “There have been no straws in residential dining locations and to-go containers were already compostable.

“UVA Dine has several guest engagement incentives, such as Fill it Forward and reusable mug discounts, and Catering has partnered with event hosts to provide all-compostable materials at zero-waste events. This includes the Alumni Association’s Reunions in 2019, the President’s Box in Scott Stadium and zero-waste Game Day Challenge Green Games.”

The UVA Office for Sustainability, for the past three months,  has been leading the Executive Order 77 Working Group – comprising more than 40 representatives from UVA Dine, Athletics, UVA Health, Procurement, Facilities Management, the UVA Bookstore, the Alumni Association and University faculty and students – in developing a single-use plastics reduction plan, identifying resources and formulating a training schedule to aid the transition. 

The plastics proscription will also apply to disposable shopping bags, to be replaced by reusable or paper sacks or no sacks by July 21. Single-use plastic water bottles, up to and including 34-ounce bottles, can be replaced by refillable water bottles, tap water, water bottle filling stations and paper or aluminum containers. Concessions and national-brand plastics will be phased out by December 2022.

Plastic containers, numbers 1 through 7, including beverage bottles, food containers and wrap, single-use coffee pods, cleaning supply containers, promotional items, packaging materials and single-use gloves, will be phased out, starting with a 25% reduction by the end of 2022, eliminating another 25% a year to eventual elimination by the end of 2025.

“We will create a plan for this phase by September,” Trimble said. “Increasing landfill diversion – through both infrastructure and increasing awareness – is also an important next step. Additionally, we will be launching training later this summer that will include how to comply with the executive order when purchasing materials and planning events – such as procuring compostable products, obtaining compost bins for events, communicating waste minimization for attendees and preventing compost contamination.”

Minimizing waste is the first priority, reducing the need for a disposable product and prioritizing reusables.

“The preferred alternative for single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws and cutlery will be reusable containers/dishes when possible,” Trimble said. “But when not possible, compostable materials will be used, primarily Biodegradable Products Institute-certified compostable products such as those from EcoProducts, but also other products that have the number 7 logo and the word ‘compostable’ clearly written on the product. Food service plastic and polystyrene includes cups, bowls, plates, food trays, hinged containers, take-out food service containers, lids, cutlery, stirrers, sandwich or small storage bags and straws. Most polystyrene used for food service has already been phased out.”

The compostable products that look like plastic, such as cold cups, are made of polylactic acid, a plastic substitute made from fermented plant starch such as corn; the plates, which look like paper, are made from sugar cane. The Observatory Hill Dining Hall, the Fresh Food Company and the Runk Dining Hall are already using compostable products for cups, lids, utensils and food containers for to-go options and reusable cutlery, plates, bowls and cups for dining in. All residential locations also offer a reusable to-go container program. Retail restaurant locations will switch to compostable products.

West Range Café has converted to paper straws and is currently switching out products to be compostable. Crossroads Food Court currently uses compostable utensils and will eliminate plastic straws and change to a compostable cup. The UVA Bookstore no longer will offer plastic bags. Customers will be encouraged to bring reusable bags, but paper bags will be offered as an alternative.

“Sourcing materials will require purchasers and event planners to have access to training and alternative options,” Trimble said. “These changes will require UVA to increase its capacity for composting – including infrastructure, collection, education and training.”

New compost bins and signage will be rolled out and will take into account the specific products that will be compostable in the various spaces to help educate users and minimize contamination.  UVA’s centralized waste program for academic spaces, which co-locates recycling and landfill containers in central building locations, will continue to expand.

“Trash and recycling bag liners will be phased out over the next four years to the extent possible and as alternative products become available,” Trimble said. “For now, the focus is on minimizing the number of bags needed. Minimizing waste helps achieve this. Additionally, UVA’s transition to a centralized waste system will reduce hundreds of thousands of small bag liners used annually.”

After the pandemic, there may be less demand for take-away food.

“The first priority is safety and all entities will follow University guidance and protocols when it comes to transitioning back to reusable materials, such as in residential dining locations,” Trimble said. “After COVID requirements are lifted, the dining halls will be able to return to more dine-in options, focusing on more reusable cutlery, plates and bowls.

‘The magnitude of single-use plastics used on a daily basis, at UVA and beyond, is significant,” Trimble said. “These measures will reduce the environmental impacts of plastic, from creation to disposal, and will help raise awareness about those impacts.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications