Bring up the topic of reusable containers in a conversation on campus and there is bound to be lively dialogue. That same effect also goes for reusable water bottles, Styrofoam packaging, and numerous other environmental topics.

The Office of Sustainability within the Facilities Department, Dining Services, and Housing and Residence Life partner closely to leverage the university community’s passion and curiosity for sustainability in delivering an array of waste reduction programs and educational initiatives on the Blacksburg campus.

These efforts are in strong alignment with the environmental stewardship goals highlighted throughout the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment (VTCAC). Approved in 2009 and revised in 2014, the VTCAC is a cornerstone for guiding the university toward a greener more sustainable future. The VTCAC’s 13-point framework touches on all aspects of sustainability and energy efficiency across campus operations, engagement, curriculum, and research.

In continued commitment to sustainability, President Tim Sands recently called for renewal of the VTCAC and creation of an ad hoc committee of university leaders across operations, academics, research, and more that will examine VTCAC goals to ensure the most rigorous sustainability standards are implemented.

Recycling and waste diversion are among the major VTCAC milestones emphasized throughout Virginia Tech’s newly-released 2018-19 Sustainability Annual Report.

The university has a goal of achieving a 50 percent recycle rate by 2020. Virginia Tech continues to progress in accomplishing this goal with a current recycling rate of 40.8 percent and a waste diversion rate near 70 percent. This represents all materials that were diverted from the landfill. Presently the national recycling average is just over 35 percent.

Virginia Tech transitioned to a single stream recycling system in 2015 and partners with the Montgomery Regional Solid Waste Authority for recycling removal and processing. Since 2008, the university has increased recycling by over 20 percent, decreased municipal solid waste by 746 tons, and increased recycling by 716 tons.

Recycling containers can be found throughout academic, residential, dining and administrative buildings, pathways, and parking lots across campus. Community members can recycle plastic, paper, cans, food waste, electronics, and more into the containers. The quantity of containers continues to grow through the award-winning Green Request for Proposals program, which puts student-requested sustainability projects into action on campus.

During the 2018-19 football season, over six tons of materials were recycled and saved from the landfill by the Office of Sustainability Game Day Green Tailgate team. Each season, intern teams pass out blue recycling bags in the highest impact parking lots surrounding Lane Stadium and educate tailgaters around recycling practices. 

Green tailgate team poses for a photo, holding a sign that says maroon, orange, green, Green Tailgate
Game Day Green Tailgate team poses before a game. Photo courtesy of the Office of Sustainability.

Responsible sourcing of packaging can significantly reduce environmental impact. Dining Services is working toward offering more sustainable packaging options at campus dining facilities. Compostable to-go boxes and the green reusable to-go containers have been strong contributors to these efforts.

A student holds a clear, green sustainable to-go container
Dining Services' resuable to-go containers continue to receive strong adoption by all members of the campus community. Photo courtesy of Dining Services.

Early in 2018, Dining Services phased out all Styrofoam packaging and cups. Part of these efforts included collaborating with Dunkin’ and Chick-fil-A to offer an alternative to Styrofoam cups. In addition, Dining Services offers reusable water bottles at dining facilities for visitors to purchase. The single-use plastic eliminators can be refilled at water bottle refill stations at places like residence halls, dining facilities, and many other locations.

Virginia Tech is also making strides in reducing food waste. In 2018, 679 tons of food waste was collected from campus dining facilities. Nearly 5,000 tons of organic compost have been deployed for composting, eventually turning into soil, from 11 university dining facilities since 2009.

Since fall 2015, more than 150,000 pounds of unserved food has been donated from campus dining facilities to six area hunger relief agencies through the Campus Kitchen program. The program’s successes are reflective of the strong collaboration between VT Engage, Dining Services, and the local nonprofit community. 

When it comes to household waste, the YMCA and student volunteer-led Y-Toss program has helped divert over 100 tons of household items like furniture and desk accessories from the landfill. At the close of each academic year, collection pods are placed around campus to collect gently-used items from residence halls and academic and administrative buildings. At the start of the academic year, the items are re-sold. Y-Toss has generated over $60,000 to support student-led programs and engaged over 1,300 volunteers.

“Virginia Tech remains more committed than ever in its environmental stewardship efforts. Through deep engagement with the university and ongoing dialogue, we will continue to find new ways to educate the campus community around important issues like recycling and expand sustainability programming,” said Sustainability Director Denny Cochrane.

The educational component will remain critical in propelling the aforementioned initiatives forward, ensuring adoption year after year.

Throughout the year, the Office of Sustainability, its student internship program, Dining Services, and Housing and Residence Life host a myriad public awareness events and marketing campaigns around recycling. One example is Virginia Tech’s recent celebration of America Recycles Day on Nov. 15. Office of Sustainability interns hosted an event that included potting plants in old food containers, sorting recycling from trash, and more.

“One of the most important things we can do for students is give them the knowledge and skills to practice recycling and sustainability while here at Virginia Tech to carry into their everyday lives after graduating. Changing mindsets now will make the biggest difference in the future,” said Dining Services and Housing and Residence Life Sustainability Manager Blake Bensman.

- Written by Alexa Briehl and Christy Myers

Recycling station and water bottle refill station are seen in McBryde Hall.
Recycling and water bottle refill stations can be found throughout the Blacksburg campus. Photo courtesy of the Office of Sustainability.