Alexis McCutchan/Fourth Estate


How the Office of Sustainability is implementing eco-friendly changes


On March 23, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 77 was put into effect, with impacts spanning all of Virginia — including Mason. The executive order aims to help reduce plastic waste and help improve the environment around us. It includes restrictions on single-use plastics as well as a variety of other wasteful products that are harmful to the environment.

Mason’s Office of Sustainability has taken the lead in implementing changes in Mason’s campus to adhere to the new order. The first thing to go was bottled water. 

The Office of Sustainability has been working for over a year on zero waste planning, so when Governor Northam signed Executive Order 77 in March 2021, banning all single-use plastics and polystyrene at state agencies (including Mason), we were ready to make the important pivot,” said Mason’s Sustainability Program Manager Amber Saxton.

“Since then, the Mason Sustainability Council launched the Circular Economy and Zero Waste (CEZW) Task Force, co-chaired by OoS and Business Services, and we’ve worked with campus vendors, Mason Dining, and the only regional industrial composter, Freestate Farms to put Mason in a position to eventually go to front-of-house composting,” Saxton continued. 

Polystyrene is a type of synthetic resin used in items such as foam, balloons, tape and coffee pods. It is often used in the food industry to make disposable items like trays and cups, which are not environmentally friendly and lack compostability. 

The implementation we see happening on Mason’s campus is still in the beginning phases. Mason aims to make a difference by adapting their current programs to be more environmentally friendly in their dining halls, as well as around campus. 

We envision that once we are able to get new zero waste stations, compost bins, and hauling set up, anyone at Mason could grab a meal or drink on campus, then throw all their waste the food container, cup, fork, food scraps, napkin, drink, et cetera all in one bin: compost,” said Saxton. 

She explained that this would be an expansion of Mason’s current compost program, which accounts for about 50 tons of compost annually.

With the changes being made, Mason dining vendors have had to examine what businesses they use to ensure compostability that aligns with their vision of sustainability here on campus. 

“Waste on college campuses is actually much less complex than residential waste,” Saxton said on the challenge of helping vendors find compostable alternatives. “As we look at universities who have completed waste characterization’s studies like Stanford, they found that they could divert 35-40% of their overall waste to compost.”

In addition to the plastic water bottles, many things will be phased out completely, as outlined in the CEZW timeline. 

“Many items will be eliminated from use or purchase. Single-use plastic and polystyrene bags, straws, water bottles, all food service ware (cups, flatware, plates, et cetera.) were in the first ‘cessation’ phase and have been eliminated already. What you should be seeing from now on are third-party certified (Biodegradable Products Institute, Compost Manufacturing Alliance, etcetera.) compostable alternatives around campus,” said Saxton.

The office will now be moving forward with phasing out other plastic and polystyrene items over time, including balloons, glitter, tape, coffee pods, packing material and bin liners. 

“We hope there are professors and students who want to jump in on groundbreaking composting research and that the whole community will volunteer at events like our zero waste Green Game or a Mason waste characterization study,” said Saxton. 

The Office of Sustainability is looking to the community of students to participate and engage by offering ideas or support on this change.