Circular Economy and Zero Waste Task Force

About

George Mason University has been taking active measures, including launching this multidisciplinary task force, to improve its waste diversion rate and green purchasing practices and policies. The Mason Sustainability Council (MSC) launched the Circular Economy and Zero Waste (CEZW) Task Force in April 2021 to create enterprise-wide initiatives and develop plans and partnerships to accelerate university-wide progress. 

Since then, the CEZW Task Force has developed and will continue to advance a ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ strategy to improve the sustainability and circularity of items Mason does purchase. The Task Force also continues to develop partnerships with internal and external stakeholders including businesses and peer institutions to expand circular recycling – ‘endless’ when possible – and closed-loop waste strategies (e.g., compost), improve waste diversion rates (the amount of waste that is not sent to landfills), and supports the Mason community’s opportunities to pivot to a culture of refill and reuse.  

Achievements

The CEZW Task Force has worked tirelessly with internal and external partners to develop best practice resources and eliminate waste at the source through its engagement with the university’s procurement processes. The Task Force’s current priorities are to support green purchasing to set high standards for the sourcing of sustainable products to mitigate pollution while also improving the rates of reduction, reuse, compost, and recycling to create a leading model for change.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin awarded the CEZW Task Force the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Gold Medal Award for its actions to reduce single-use plastic use, promote green purchasing, and advance zero-waste planning efforts. Governor Youngkin acknowledged the Task Force (and other winners), stating that “The Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards recognize those that are leading by example in the Commonwealth,” and added that “These thirteen winners and two honorable mentions have created proactive solutions in their communities.”  

The Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award highlighted many of the CEZW Task Force’s achievements over the past 12 months: 

  • The elimination of more than 9.1 million single-use plastic or polystyrene items, weighing 92,000 lbs., and a pivot to third-party certified sustainable alternatives within six months of the Task Force’s launch.
    • Approximately 8 million single-use plastic or polystyrene items still need to be eliminated from Mason’s annual purchasing and replaced with more sustainable alternatives. 
  • The development of a ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ strategy.  
  • The creation and implementation of standards, criteria, and a ‘Reference List’ resource for vendors to quickly pivot to better alternatives, including endlessly recyclable aluminum, compostables that are third-party certified and meet Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and/or Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA) standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and either Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified or 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content paper alternatives to mitigate deforestation for alternatives sourced. 
  • The establishment of new partnerships that supported collaboration and innovation for solutions development, including internal and external stakeholders, hundreds of Mason purchasers, vendors, colleges, departments, offices, groups, composting sites, peer universities, municipalities, and other state agencies. 
  • The hosting of weekly office hours during early actions, which transitioned to monthly office hours to support and guide campus stakeholders and Mason vendors through the transition.  

Explore a timeline of the CEZW Task Force’s achievements here.

Initiatives

Initiative # 1: Buy Less, Buy Better 

The Task Force’s ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ strategy involves award-winning plastics reduction, green purchasing, and zero waste efforts. Key actions include: 

Elimination or reduction of: 

  • BAGS (single-use plastic):  
    • Shopping and small (e.g., sandwich) bags – eliminated in July 2021 
      • All campus locations transitioned to either no bag, a reusable alternative, or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified and/or 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content paper bags
    • Small bin liners (< 23-gallon bags) – to be eliminated wherever feasible by January 2023  
    • Large bin liners (≥ 23 gallons bags) – Bags taken out of low residue paper recycling streams; Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certified liners are used for compostable stream; other opportunities to be evaluated.   
      • 2020: Mason’s Facilities Management has already eliminated over 50,000 lbs. of plastic film per year by removing large bin liners from low residue paper recycling streams!
      • 2021: Mason’s Facilities Management started reducing the number of waste receptacles around campus and is working to co-locate all trash bins with other diversion streams.
        • Bonus: The Facilities Management team also created collection and recovery sites for the plastic film the university receives, capturing between 500 – 1,000 lbs. per month of plastic film for reuse in manufacturing as secondary plastic items like composite decking and furniture. 
  • STRAWS (single-use plastic):  
    • All single-use plastic straws were eliminated in July 2021 
      • Compostable alternatives are available upon request, which is especially important for folks with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) needs. 
  • BOTTLES (single-use plastic):  
    • Single-use plastic water bottles were eliminated in July 2021; we will continue to phase out other bottles with very limited potential exemptions for product categories not able to be offered in the marketplace in better alternatives (e.g., aluminum cans, fountain, or other refill options, glass, etc.).  
      • Mason purchasers, vendors, concessionaires, etc. should not purchase plastic water bottles with Mason funds or on Mason’s campuses. 
      • Mason continues to invest in water refill stations, incentivize the reuse of cups at vendor locations, and giveaway reusable cups, bottles, or Fill it Forward items to support the best alternative: reusables that you refill! 
  • FOODSERVICE ITEMS (single-use plastic and polystyrene): 
    • 90% of all single-use plastic or polystyrene food service items were eliminated in July 2021 – the CEZW Task Force is working to eliminate the remainder with vendors and Mason purchasers so that the university can broaden composting practices.  
      • Mason pivoted all cups, plates, flatware, bowls, clamshells, lids, trays, etc. from plastic to Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) or Compost Manufacturer Alliance (CMA) third-party certified compostable alternatives. Mason purchasers, vendors, concessionaires, etc. must purchase and use only acceptable BPI and/or CMA certified compostable items for events and in operations – this will help mitigate harmful PFAS in the compost stream, as well as contamination of both recycling and compost.  
  • MISCELLANEOUS SMALL ITEMS (single-use plastic and polystyrene): 
    • Single-use balloons, confetti containing plastic, plastic or vinyl tablecloths, glitter, ribbon containing plastic, coffee pods, packing peanuts, plastic-based name tags, disposable mop supplies, etc. have been eliminated and should not be purchased by Mason purchasers with Mason funds, or for events or other activities held on Mason’s campuses.
  • OTHER? (single-use plastics and polystyrene):  
    • The Task Force will continue to roll out updates when other items are slated for phase-out (e.g., bubble wrap, mixed-plastic packing envelopes, etc.) as it evaluates acceptable and feasible alternatives. The Task Force will engage and inform the Mason community about any changes.  

Support our ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ strategy and explore better alternatives to items that were eliminated from use.

Open the PDF document in a new tab by clicking here.

Please check back for more information or attend the next Task Force office hours session on May 11 at 11 a.m. EDT if you have questions or need guidance on acceptable alternatives and how to source them. Additional office hours will be scheduled by the Task Force and updated online.

Initiative # 2: Mason Zero Waste – Improving Mason’s Waste Diversion and Systems 

Since reduction and reuse are the best strategies to achieve zero waste goals and reduce our waste impact, Initiative #2 is heavily affected by Initiative #1. The prioritization of source reduction and the elimination of low-quality disposable products from purchasing are parts of our ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ strategy that can help Mason more efficiently and effectively manage its waste systems. Source reduction is our first priority through a ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ procurement strategy, reuse of more durable items purchased is our second priority, and our third priority is improving rates of diversion for items that must be disposed of in a specific bin. 

Waste diversion is led by Mason’s dedicated Facilities’ Waste and Recycling team and their efforts focus on diverting items with proven records of higher recycling rates (e.g., aluminum, post-consumer recycled (PCR) paper, cardboard, metal, etc.) from the trash. They are also leading pilots to test the appropriate disposal of third-party certified compostable items to reduce contamination. Getting Initiative #1 right helps Mason focus on products with proven rates of recycling and revenue generation potential, and returns raw materials to endlessly circular lifecycles or closed-loop systems with regenerative reuse potential.  

Membership 

Leadership:  

The CEZW Task Force is Co-Chaired by Pascal Petter, executive director of auxiliary services in Operations and Business Services, and Amber Saxton, program manager for Campus Efficiencies in the Office of Sustainability.  

However, Amber and Pascal note that the CEZW Task Force has enjoyed award-winning success and proved effective only because of the strong support of senior leadership, including those on the MSC’s Executive Leadership Board including Frank Strike, the vice president of Facilities, Patrick McCavitt, the interim vice president of Operations and Business Services, as well as MSC Executive Leaders and MSC Co-Chairs senior vice president for finance and administration Carol Kissal and provost and executive vice president Mark Ginsberg. 

Explore the leadership and membership of the Mason Sustainability Council and learn more about the membership of the CEZW Task Force.

Members and Contributors: 

The Office of Sustainability’s Colleen Regan and Facilities Management’s Kevin Brim and Steve Pulis are core members of the CEZW Task Force – but membership is not limited to faculty and staff! Another member, Connor Cuevo, is an undergraduate student who is essential in the implementation of the smart waste bin initiative at Mason. Mason Alumni are even involved in the Task Force’s sustainable actions: Sophia Chapin, class of 2021, contributed to a review of the Task Force’s ‘Reference List’ resource. The Task Force has also hosted research roundtables as Mason faculty expertise is invaluable in connecting the Task Force’s work to Mason as a Living Lab projects. Mason Fiscal Services, Mason Dining, departments, individual purchasers, many external partners, and university peers have all been integral to the creation of a collaborative and leading model for change. Are you a Mason faculty member, staff member, student, or alumnus interested in supporting an initiative or would you like to join the Task Force? Contact masonsc@gmu.edu to learn more. 

Need Support?

The CEZW Task Force is committed to supporting the university community’s efforts to make Mason a zero-waste university. If you have questions or need guidance, please contact the CEZW Task Force at masonsc@gmu.edu.


The Circular Economies and Zero Waste Task Force is jointly led by Amber Saxton, Office of Sustainability, and Pascal Petter, Operations and Business Services. If you’re passionate about circular economies and zero waste, or interested in conducting research on these topics, please contact masonsc@gmu.edu.