Plastics Reduction Effort Leads to Postwide Changes

LEXINGTON, Va., July 27, 2021—As cadets and other members of the VMI community return to post for the fall semester, they will notice several changes, most in areas pertaining to food and concession operations. These changes are being made in order for the Institute to comply with Executive Order #77, which directs all state agencies to reduce Virginia’s reliance on single-use plastics.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ’81 announced the executive order in a speech earlier this year given at the Environment Virginia Symposium, which has been hosted by VMI ever since its inception three decades ago. In making this announcement, Northam stressed the huge volume of trash going into the state’s landfills: approximately 22.5 million tons each year.

“Single-use disposable plastic items in particular pose a severe and growing threat to fish and wildlife and to the health of our Chesapeake Bay,” said Northam in March. “We know the planet will be better off if we stop using so much plastic. The Commonwealth must and will lead by example.”

VMI leadership has appointed a cross-functional committee in place to implement the research, purchasing, inventory, communications, and future planning that comes with Executive Order #77.

The order offers a detailed road map forward in curtailing the use of plastics by state agencies. The buying, selling, or distribution of single-use plastic bags, single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws and cutlery, along with single-use plastic water bottles, was outlawed as of July 21. Over the next few years, state agencies are to replace remaining plastics with biodegradable containers or containers with high levels of recycled content.

Staff from VMI Auxiliary Services, which oversees dining, catering, and concessions across post, as well as the VMI Bookstore, have spent months this year planning changes necessary to be in compliance with the order.

Already, they’ve elected to replace plastic water bottles with aluminum bottles, and the new bottles are tentatively set to arrive on post by the end of September. Twenty-ounce plastic soda bottles will be replaced with soda cans, once the remaining inventory of bottles is sold out. By the end of the academic year, plans call for vending machines dispensing plastic bottles to be replaced by machines dispensing soda cans.

Auxiliary Services staff are also thinking of selling reusable beverage containers that could be filled either in the PX or in Crozet Hall. Over the past several years, Physical Plant employees have been replacing old-fashioned water fountains across post with fountains designed to allow for the refilling of water bottles, and that effort will continue in the coming months and years.

Some changes had already taken place before the executive order was issued. Styrofoam “clamshells” for takeout food had been phased out and replaced with biodegradable ones, as cadets who received takeout meals during the coronavirus pandemic found that Styrofoam made their food soggy.

At the bookstore, which is managed by Follett Corp., the change to paper bags for merchandise has already been made.

The statewide scope of the change has eased the transition. Because Executive Order #77 applies to all public colleges and universities in Virginia, moving away from plastics “isn’t a foreign concept to our vendors,” noted Lt. Col. Lee Clark III ’93, director of auxiliary services.

Another issue that’s been brought to the forefront by the executive order is the use of plastic bags to line trash cans. While VMI has gotten an extension from the state in order to keep using the bags in the immediate future, plans call for eliminating individual trash cans in offices and classrooms and moving to the use of a shared receptacle for trash in common areas. No changes are planned for barracks trash collection.

Other changes to be implemented in the coming months and years will include buying liquids such as bleach and motor oil in the largest containers possible, to cut down on the number of containers needing to be disposed of.

Those involved with making these changes noted that recycling options in Lexington are limited to non-existent at the present time, thanks largely to the global downturn in the market for recyclables. “Unfortunately, now, everything is trash,” said Maj. Eric Schwartz ’95, deputy director of Physical Plant. VMI hopes that the recycling market turns around so we can better stewards of our natural resources.

All involved stressed that adapting to the executive order will take time and a multitude of changes, some major and some minor, implemented over a period of years.

“It’s a four-year reduction plan overall,” said Schwartz.

Mary Price
Communications and Marketing

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