a man in a suit fills a water bottle at a bottle filling station inside a VCU building
Water bottle filling stations, such as this one in the new College of Health Professions Building, are part of VCU's efforts to reduce single-use plastics. (Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

VCU is phasing out most single-use disposable plastics and polystyrene items

In compliance with an executive order by Gov. Ralph Northam, the university is rolling out sustainable alternatives or will no longer offer certain single-use items.

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As Virginia Commonwealth University students, faculty and staff return to campus, they may start to notice more sustainable alternatives to single-use items used by VCU dining facilities, athletics venues, custodial services and more.

In March, Gov. Ralph Northam issued executive order 77, which seeks to reduce Virginia’s reliance on single-use disposable plastics and waste sent to landfills.

Specifically, the order required 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 by July 21. And it requires the establishment of a plan to phase out of all non-medical single-use plastics and expanded polystyrene items by 25% each year for a 100% reduction by 2025.

“It’s great for VCU. It’s great for Virginia. This is one of the many things we do to reduce the environmental impact of our operations,” said Ann Kildahl, director of sustainability at VCU. “We’re a large institution with a big footprint and this is a wonderful way to go about reducing that.”

Following Northam’s order, VCU convened a working group of representatives from VCU Office of Procurement ServicesVCU Facilities Management, which includes the VCU Office of Sustainability and Custodial OperationsVCU Business Services, which includes VCU Dining Services; and VCU Athletics, which oversees concessions at venues such as the Stuart C. Siegel Center. The group has worked to identify what plastics and polystyrene items are coming onto campus — often provided by outside vendors or contractors — and what could be reduced or eliminated. Its goals are to develop cessation and future reduction plans to reduce plastic and other solid waste, coordinate with vendors and partners across the university, communicate updates to the university community, and more. As part of their efforts, the group is also collaborating with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and other Virginia universities.

“The executive order calls for a cessation of specific plastics but allows for a phased out use of nonmedical plastics over the next four years, through 2025, but our goal is to try to be ahead of that as much as we can be,” said John McHugh, director of procurement services at VCU.

Those items will be replaced with more environmentally friendly alternatives (such as compostable or other recyclable items) or will no longer be offered at most dining, retail and athletic locations; used by the custodial vendor; or be available for use in VCU schools and departments, according to the executive order working group. An example of an alternative to single-use plastic cutlery in dining facilities would be compostable utensils, McHugh said. Additionally, in certain instances, reusable items such as water bottles and cups will replace single-use items.

“It’s great for VCU. It’s great for Virginia. This is one of the many things we do to reduce the environmental impact of our operations. We’re a large institution with a big footprint and this is a wonderful way to go about reducing that.”

Ann Kildahl

The new measures build on previous actions taken by VCU to reduce the amount of plastic used at the university. Several years ago, for example, VCU offices got rid of plastic trash can liners and moved to a centralized waste disposal approach. And when VCU entered into a new contract with a custodial services company, it stipulated that the company must provide compostable trash can liners. VCU has also installed water bottle refill stations in buildings throughout campus to encourage individuals to refill containers instead of using single-use plastic bottles.

“VCU has really been ahead of the curve,” McHugh said. “The university has been proactive in its approach to sustainability and recycling and the removal of single-use items from the waste stream.”

While VCU intends to phase out certain single-use items and phase in the more sustainable alternatives, the next major step will be the delivery this fall of a longer-term plan for how the university will curtail plastic use.

Kildahl, who joined the university in July and was previously the first sustainability manager at the University of Hong Kong, applauded the effort to address the impact of plastic waste on the environment and human health.

“Removing single-use plastics from the waste stream will of course reduce the negative environmental impact of our activities (dining, athletics, office operations, etc.). It’s also important to point out that at VCU, complying with this order can have a multiplier effect, as students and the whole community adopt new habits,” she said. “Very soon, things like drinking water from a plastic bottle — or using a plastic spoon, then throwing it away seconds later — will no longer be possible. People will adapt and behavior will change. By introducing alternatives, we have the opportunity to move away from a throwaway culture and introduce a new norm, instilling new lifelong habits among our students, employees and the community, now and in the future.”