Business (Managing Higher Ed)

Don't Throw That Away

Colleges and universities are moving toward zero-waste campuses.

zero-waste campuses 


At the University of Oregon in Eugene, trashcans will disappear in two academic buildings this summer, replaced by deskside waste systems with compartments for composting and recycling.

At Clark University in Worcester, MA, food, used paper towels and bathroom waste will be separated and composted in seven residence halls by this fall.

And at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, at least 90 percent of the waste generated in its main dining hall and at its stadium for football games is already being recycled or composted.

Throughout the past five years, colleges and universities have moved beyond recycling paper, bottles and cans in those familiar plastic blue bins to focus on becoming zero-waste campuses. In addition to recycling, this strategy incorporates composting of food and other materials to achieve a net-zero environmental impact from consumption and waste.

“Zero waste is the next frontier,” says Karyn Kaplan, the Zero Waste Program manager at the University of Oregon. “Many, many colleges are trying to incorporate policies, practices and procedures to get to zero waste, not just with recycling but also composting.”

What is driving this anti-garbage strategy is the sustainability movement that has swept across campuses with the goal of eliminating emissions of greenhouse gasses. Another major contributor to global warming is the garbage buried at landfills, which creates organic decay and releases methane that also helps warm the earth’s atmosphere.

The word “landfill” now has such negative connotations on college campuses that many schools are purchasing waste stations with compartments labeled aluminum, plastic, paper and landfill. “When you put something in that particular container, you know it’s going to go to a landfill,” says Marty Campbell, Osceola plant operations superintendent at Valencia College in Orlando. “I think that has some impact — just knowing where it’s going.”

RecyleMania Gets Out the Message

One effort that has motivated students on campuses across North America to embrace recycling is an annual competition called RecyleMania (, sponsored by a group of environmental organizations and private corporations. The RecycleMania Tournament was launched in 2001 as a friendly challenge between Ohio University and Miami University in Oxford, OH, to increase recycling on their campuses. In this year’s eight-week contest, which ended on March 29, 461 schools, representing more than 5.3 million students from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Canada participated and recycled or composted 89.1 million pounds of waste, preventing the release of 127,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.

For the third year in a row, Valencia College won first place in the competition’s waste minimization category for reducing the overall amount of trash and recycled material. The final score for the college was 2.87 pounds per capita of total waste, down from 3.19 pounds per capita in 2013.

What has increased participation in recycling at the college, which has six campuses in central Florida, is a year-round focus on reducing waste by eliminating as much paper as possible, installing water fountains for refilling plastic bottles and using waste stations with recycling compartments. “A lot of the things that contribute to waste minimization are cultural and institutional,” Campbell says.

One successful strategy the college experimented with is a pilot project conducted last year that used fewer recycling and waste bins in buildings. Instead, larger bins were placed in more centralized locations, which forced faculty and students to carry trash to waste stations in the hallways. Not only did the experiment reduce the number of bins the college was required to buy, but it also reduced the amount of plastic bin liners and the time used in collection and disposal, Campbell says.

Composting a Key

In addition to recycling, the University of Oregon has been composting for the past eight years, starting with its dining halls and now moving into academic buildings. This has helped the university reach a 51 percent recovery rate for all campus waste and move toward a goal of creating a zero-waste campus.

“Zero waste is a much more holistic approach, whereas recycling was just dealing with one part of the waste stream,” Kaplan says. “The goal of zero waste is to ultimately not send anything out as a product to bury or burn unless you absolutely have to.”

What jumpstarted the university’s composting efforts was finding a local forest products company that was looking for more feedstock to increase its supply of yard waste. The company began accepting food scraps into its supply, which opened a market for taking organic waste from the university.

This summer, the university will start a pilot project to create two zero-waste buildings on campus with the removal of freestanding trashcans. Staff will place trash in bins along their desks that include compartments for composting and garbage, and then empty those bins in central zero-waste stations.

The new waste disposal system will then be marketed to other buildings on campus. “What we’re hoping is people will embrace this concept of zero-waste stations, and our custodians will no longer have to pick up and service garbage cans,” Kaplan says.

Reusing Products Not Recycled

At Clark University, which diverts 52 percent of its waste from landfills or incinerators, a key strategy is considering what the campus is not recycling and finding markets for those materials, says Jenny Isler, the university’s sustainability coordinator.

One example of that approach is the student-run Clark Community Thrift Store, which was launched in 2011 as a place for students to take unwanted clothing and other items when they move out of the residence halls each spring. In the past three years, students have dropped off 30 tons of donations at the store, where the items are resold to students and members of the community. Beside reusing and recycling, however, the students also need to learn that reducing consumption is critical, Isler says. “The message is not recycle more,” she says. “It’s consume less.”

As part of this effort, Clark’s dining services last year began offering reusable containers for takeout food, selling them to students for $5 a year. Once students purchase a meal and carry it out in the plastic container, they can bring it back and exchange it for a clean one.

Herb Sharpe, corporate director, education and healthcare, at Waste Management, a Houston-based firm, says colleges and universities need to engage all sectors of campus operations, from dining services to facilities departments, to reduce waste. “The way waste is generated on campus and the way it is viewed should be the job of everyone,” he says.

Institutions also need to assess the flow of materials coming onto campus and evaluate the purchasing decisions that have been made. “Colleges and universities must look at the materials on their campuses not merely as waste,” Sharpe adds, “but as an opportunity to cut costs, become better stewards of the environment and engage their students and communities.”

This article originally appeared in the issue of .