VCU begins efforts to reduce plastic waste in dining locations

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Emma Carlson, Contributing Writer

The university has begun efforts to reduce plastic waste around campus by offering reusable, recyclable or compostable alternatives to single-use plastics, notably at VCUDine locations, such as Bleecker St.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 77 on March 23 to reduce waste caused by single-use plastics in Virginia. Non-medical single-use plastic items will be phased out by 25% each year, reaching a 100% reduction by 2025. 

As the order includes state institutions of higher education, VCU will be required to stop buying, selling and distributing single-use plastics. Efforts to reduce plastic waste have already begun at the university in dining, athletic and custodial services, according to an article from VCU News.

Ann Kildahl, the director of sustainability at VCU, notes how “ubiquitous” plastic has become in society, and how the university has already begun supplying alternatives. Bleecker St. in Snead Hall has started using paper bags to hand out food this semester. 

“VCU will provide alternatives throughout our campus operations, enabling students and staff to reduce their impact, while also sending important signals to the market,” Kildahl stated in an email.

The executive order is divided into two phases. The first phase requires state agencies to no longer purchase, sell or distribute specific plastic items such as disposable plastic bags, single use plastic food containers and plastic straws and cutlery. The second phase requires the cessation, or halt, of all types of non-medical single-use plastics.    

“Single-use disposable plastic items, in particular, pose a severe and growing threat to fish and wildlife and to the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” the order stated. “Plastics are the most pervasive type of marine debris in our ocean and along our coasts.”

All VCUDine locations are in the process of transitioning away from all single-use plastics, but many locations are still using the supplies they have left, according to Erin Thorton, marketing manager for Aramark.

Thorton, former registered dietitian for VCUDine, notes that popular locations such as Panda Express and the Starbucks in James Branch Cabell Library are some of the locations still using their remaining single-use plastic inventory, but will soon be switching to paper products and compostable or recyclable plastics. 

“Looking at our purchasing history, it’s estimated that we have already reduced plastic usage by over 60% with both the single-use items in the immediate cessation phase and the phase 2 plastic items that we are still replacing over the next few years,” Thorton stated in an email.

Market 810 in Shafer is the only VCUDine location using reusable dishware. The university is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding proper sanitization of reusable dishware items, according to Thorton. Guidelines include washing dishes with soap and hot water and avoiding buffet-style meals.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused an increase in disposable plastics for public safety reasons, according to a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Personal protective equipment — such as masks and gloves — along with plastic containers in food settings became increasingly used, contributing to more plastic waste, according to the study. 

Market 810 only offered single-use plastic dishware and cutlery during the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, and a total of 113,943 entry swipes were used at Market 810 during that period, according to Thorton. 

Kildahl stated that individuals can also do their part to reduce single-use plastic waste; having a reusable water bottle or shopping bag on hand can help limit one’s individual waste. Other ways include purchasing food and grocery items not in plastic containers or using a cotton rag instead of plastic sponges when washing dishes, according to Kildahl.

“While VCU does its part at the institutional level, this is also an opportunity for each of us to reflect on the choices we make every day,” Kildhal stated in an email. “I hope this measure and the changes it is driving at VCU will raise awareness across the community.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the food service company, Aramark.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply