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Sustainability groups work to reduce plastic waste in response to Executive Order 77

The office and other sustainability groups work to encourage healthy sustainability choices through projects around Grounds

This year, sustainability groups across Grounds are working to eliminate the usage of single-use plastics, as mandated by Executive Order 77.

Signed by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam last March, the order aims to reduce plastic pollution and eliminate the need for new solid waste disposal facilities. The order tasked state agencies with the immediate cessation of non-medical, single-use plastic items by July, followed by a more in-depth inventory and planned phase-out period of plastic items which were not part of the immediate cessation. 

The Office for Sustainability focuses on building a sustainability-minded coalition on Grounds that teaches people about best practices and behavior changes related to waste minimization, water and energy conservation, food equity, community engagement and more. The office also works with student-led organizations such as Sustainability Advocates and Zero Waste Ambassadors. This year, the groups are focused on implementing executive order 77.

The University has an executive order 77 working group composed of more than 40 representatives from U.Va. Dining, Virginia Athletics, U.Va. Health, Procurement, Facilities Management, the U.Va. Bookstore and the Virginia Alumni Association.

The University’s elimination timeline first stopped the use of single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers including plates, cups, bowls and hinged containers, along with single-use disposable plastic straws, disposable bags and cutlery including forks, spoons, knives and stirrers as of July 21. Single-use plastic water bottles were also eliminated as much as possible by July 21 from the dining halls and on Grounds restaurants. 

Though these items may be recyclable, it is better for them to be replaced by non-plastic alternatives. The University is currently looking to increase the selection of reusable, compostable and recyclable options.

The University is currently working to move from phase one into phase two, which requires agencies to reduce their volume of non-medical, single-use plastic and expand polystyrene items by 25 percent each year over the next four years.

Another part of phase two includes eliminating single-use trash bags by the end of 2025, which sustainability director Andrea Trimble said will be one of the biggest challenges for the transition.

“There aren’t great alternatives as of this point, so our focus is on minimization,” Trimble said. 

In an email to The Cavalier Daily, U.Va. Dining Sustainability Coordinator Caroline Baloga said compostable items are more expensive than plastic alternatives, such as single-use plastic cutlery and to-go containers. While meal plan rates will not increase, retail dining locations — like the West Range and Rising Roll Cafes — will increase their prices to accommodate this difference. 

“For example, plastic water bottles were previously available for purchase in our convenience stores and catering company priced at $1.99 and have now been replaced by aluminum water bottles priced at $2.99,” Baloga said.

Sustainability coordinator Lela Garner focuses on involving students in projects by running the Office for Sustainabiity’s Student Employee Program. The program organizes student-centric engagement events and coordinates strategic partnerships with other student groups and departments on Grounds. The office also aims to provide students with a multitude of engagement opportunities from the University’s three sustainability leadership programs, service learning events and various educational workshops.

The Sustainability Advocates Program works with the Office for Sustainability to complete projects in order to increase sustainability practices on Grounds. The program also meets every semester to decide upon an overarching theme where students can complete projects under different subgroups. The majority of the semester is spent planning the project, whether it be a food drive or a speaker event. This semester, the theme is the University’s 2030 Sustainability Plan and students are split into groups of five focusing on water, waste, nitrogen, food, research, equity, teaching and the carbon neutral subgroup.

Julianne Feuchter, executive leader for Sustainability Advocates and second-year College student, facilitates the group’s various projects. Over the past year, Feuchter has contributed to projects by facilitating a speaker series on the topic of climate policy and promoting vegan eating by handing out flyers. 

Feuchter also said that stores on Grounds are using more reusable paper bags, and that the University is working to increase publicly accessible compost bins so that it is easier for people to dispose of their trash in the correct bins. This decreases the chances of people throwing trash into the incorrect bins for convenience and helps to ensure that bins are clean before sending them off to the landfills. 

The school has implemented some changes such as offering a “bigger selection of more compostable items throughout cafeterias, athletic rooms and the stockrooms,” Feuchter said.

To accommodate for an increase in compostable materials such as to-go food containers, cutlery and napkins, Trimble said the University will also increase its composting infrastructure. In 2008, the University began utilizing composting services. Composting diverts materials from landfills and allows them to provide nutrients to soil.

Zero Waste Ambassadors is another sustainability group on Grounds that dedicates time to properly sorting compost bins and minimizing food waste. They also work with the office to implement projects on Grounds. Formed in February of this year, the group helped staff waste stations at the Observatory Hill Dining Hall tents in order to capture as many compostable materials as possible. They work alongside the Office for Sustainability to complete projects. Many students, such as Feuchter, are involved in both.

Sustainability Program Manager Jesse Warren said composting has decreased because of the impacts of the pandemic, as students were sent home in March 2020 and some students opted to not live in Charlottesville last year. 

Black Bear Composting currently collects food waste, paper and other discarded materials from the University. In 2020, the company collected 218.16 tons of compost from the University, down from 483.75 tons in 2019. 

Warren said he’s unsure of how the plastic ban will impact the amount of compost this year as the semester is still getting underway.

“The amount of compostable materials will significantly increase so composting infrastructure will increase — bins and signage — throughout Grounds,” Trimble said. “We will need everyone’s help to ensure composting bins don’t get contaminated — to ensure that only compostable materials go in those bins.”

Since last year, dining halls only offer compostable containers and reusable boxes. 


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