Recycling great ideas: best practices for reducing waste

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Sustainability can mean many things to many people, but limiting waste product and fostering reuse are at the core of sustainable best practices. Should it have avoided the vocabulary and mantra of Occidental students before this semester, sustainability now seeps into many conversations and curricula across campus as the college’s annual theme. The Cultural Studies Program (CSP) lecture series brought Jay Famiglietti, whose talk “Water and Sustainability” discussed the needs and challenges of water conservation in California; early in the semester, this publication ran a double-paged spread about the various facets of sustainability on campus.

Discourse on the subject will continue into next semester, culminating in the this year’s TEDx Occidental conference, which will focus on the various facets of global sustainability.

In the midst of this conversation, Occidental produces trash — mounds and mounds and dumpsters and more dumpsters brimming with rubbish. For their guest speakers (yes, even those focused on sustainability), the college hosts luncheons complete with pastries on doilies and half-eaten finger sandwiches destined for a waste basket. Sustainability and waste go hand in hand, one the antithesis of the other.

Colleges and universities, despite being at the forefront of many other progressive initiatives, often lag behind in embracing sustainable best practices. In a 2001 op-ed for the journal “BioScience,” Christopher Uhl and Amy Anderson challenged higher education institutions with nine goals to integrate sustainability into higher education. More than a decade before “sustainability” morphed into a hip buzzword on the streets of northeast Los Angeles, Uhl and Anderson presented the following list of goals to institutions of higher education: seek fossil fuel independence; conserve water resources; end materials waste; eat food produced sustainably; create and abide by a land ethic; create sustainable alternatives to car-based transit; create “green” buildings; guarantee ecological literacy; and prioritize research for a sustainable world.

Either through coincidence or the shared goal of a greener world, Occidental has risen to many of these challenges. According to the college’s sustainability web page, the school has committed to reducing water use on campus, is a leader in providing sustainably-sourced food, has funded sustainable alternatives to car-based transit and instituted a strict standard for new buildings and renovations.

With these many advances in other fields, the fate of material waste on campus then comes into question. What happens to the crusty fries left over from Cooler burgers after beginning their journey haphazardly tossed in the trash bins? As with many heroic tales, their resting place depends on where they began.

Waste on campus

The college’s materials waste is divided into “waste streams” that determine the endpoint based on where the material began, such as in the case of the Cooler burger and fries or, more importantly, the Snapple that washed it down. The leftover fries, the paper container that swaddled them, and the bottle are destined for the landfill. According to documents supplied by Environmental Health and Safety Manager Bruce Steele, solid waste from the Cooler has food waste, trash and recyclables mixed together and placed in a small compactor. The same document concedes that in the future, the college needs to determine a method to better separate recyclables and compostables from this waste stream so they do not end up destined for the landfill.

Food from the Marketplace and the Green Bean fares better in terms of sustainable reuse. Pre- and post-consumer waste from Dining Facilities in the Johnson Student Center makes its way to the large trash compactor on the side of the building. From campus, it travels almost 80 miles to Victorville, California, where it is industrially composted and used to create soil amendments. Material disposed of in the green-colored composting cans found at various locations across campus (like the Green Bean) is deposited in this receptacle. According to Steele, in the future the college aims to increase compostable waste directed to this trash compactor after resolving certain logistical hiccups. Steele said that this would require all waste disposed into these bins be compostable, as glass, plastic and metal — which are sometimes accidentally deposited — can cause the larger loads to be rejected at the composting site.

“A bag for compost that has even one piece in it that can’t be composted ends up in the trash,” Laura Koeller, Health and Safety Manager at the Green Bean, said via email. “So what’s really important is that everything is accurately sorted and that people are mindful of where they put the items.”

While trash and food waste are generally the most obvious examples of waste products generated across campus, less obvious examples include green material for the college’s landscaping. Trimmings are brought to Mount Fiji, where they are transported for composting or, if contaminated, used as ground cover at the landfill. Some green waste finds itself at the Food, Energy, and Sustainability Team (FEAST) garden for composting. Wood waste is chipped and either composted or used as mulch and soil additive.

The importance of recycling green waste in California was recently underscored by the California State Assembly via the passage of the Assembly Bill 1826. The bill, approved Sept. 2014 by Governor Jerry Brown, requires businesses producing a specified amount of organic waste per week to arrange for recycling services. Starting in January 2016, businesses producing more than eight cubic yards of commercial solid waste per week will be required to begin organic recycling; by 2020, businesses producing as little as two cubic yards per week will be required to make such arrangements.

Occidental has already begun implementing a mitigation strategy for all waste, including recyclable waste. The college will be getting a mixed recycling container so paper, plastic, cans, glass and cardboard can all be collected and directed to a Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF), Steele said. In the future, there will be stricter mandates for directing trash to MRFs in order to avoid sending recyclable materials to the landfill.

“Waste minimization is the best approach and is done when possible,” Steele said.

Best practices for sustainable waste disposal on college campuses

In 2013, the State of Massachusetts published a set of guidelines for colleges and universities, outlining sustainable best practices and suggestions for waste reduction on campuses statewide. Citing examples from colleges across the country, the authors identify reducing plastic bags and bottles, recycling furniture and dorm decoration, designing green buildings and raising recycling awareness as potential and previously successful practices for reducing waste on campus. Over the past several years, Occidental has implemented many of these tactics, including removing plastic bags from campus dining facilities and recycling student furniture through the Sustainable Recycle Program.

Other campuses across the country, too, have taken up the crusade against waste, and in 2013, students from the University of New Hampshire formed the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) to help build and support student-led and sustainable waste-reduction programs at colleges nationwide. So far, more than 25 institutions have joined the network, including Harvard University, Pitzer College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carleton College, with the goal of creating zero-waste solutions in campus communities.

Sustainability at Occidental

In the future, Campus Sustainability Coordinator Jenny Low hopes to bring a recycling awareness campaign to campus as well as improve signage for the existing infrastructure.

“I do want to have more outreach events in which we will talk about the larger goals and also talking about what’s happening on campus,” Low said. “I’m also going to be working on clearer signage so people can actually know what should go in the [recycling] bin.”

The Green Bean has recently purchased new waste bins in an attempt to increase student awareness regarding which waste goes where, according to Koeller.

“I’m very excited about the new bins — anything that draws attention to the importance of composting and sorting trash is something we certainly need,” Koeller said. “I think this has definitely made people think twice about where they put their waste, and that’s certainly a positive thing.”

All Green Bean staff members are trained in waste disposal, which enables them both to help students and to sort trash themselves. Additionally, all of the cups, straws, lids and stir sticks that the Green Bean orders are compostable. She hopes that the bins, which will have signage detailing common trash, recycling and compostable products, will help to educate customers.

“The Marketplace staff sorts everything that goes back onto the trays,” said Koeller. “But at the Green Bean the students have to be a bit more proactive.”

Similarly, students leading the Sustainable Recycle Program — a program that collects donated items left in dorms and re-sells them to students the next year — take the time to ensure that Occidental’s material waste is reduced.

The annual sale, which has occurred the last three years, takes place during move-in. According to student organizer Brita Loeb, the most common items are hangers, lamps, trash bins, fans, and plastic storage containers. Often, though, unique items, such as surfboards, rollerblades and unused anal beads are donated to the program.

More items have been donated and purchased each consecutive year — this year’s sale yielded about $1500, according to Loeb. The funds generated from the program pay student workers, who help organize and sell items for a four-day period.

“I hope that leaders continue to put in the labor and effort needed to sustain the program,” said Loeb via email, noting the importance of the program in diverting potential waste from landfills.

Low, who recently joined the Facilities staff, has goals to reduce all-around waste on campus, including power and water waste.

The current roofing project, which will repair or replace five roofs across campus, will include a light-reflective surface that cools the buildings and reduces cooling costs associated with running air conditioning. However, according to Low, the solar array on Mount Fiji remains the most obvious example of energy waste reduction. Based on figures since its installation, the solar panels on upper campus have satisfied between 11 and 13 percent of the campus-wide energy needs, reducing the college’s dependence on outside electrical power. Air duct cleaning and other efficiency-improving measures such as roof replacement have contributed to additional savings.

Water waste continues to be a source of discussion on campus as the historic drought in California presses on. Though officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association acknowledge that the anticipated El Niño conditions in the Eastern Pacific will bring heavy rains to California and the desert southwest, it will likely not relieve drought conditions that have prevailed over the last several years.

In an April 27 email to the college community, President Jonathan Veitch outlined the college’s response to the increasingly severe drought conditions. These efforts include adjusted irrigation schedules, groundwater recharge projects and the hiring of landscape architect Susan Van Atta. Van Atta has been tasked with developing a plan to decrease water use on campus landscaping projects and increase the use of drought-resistant plants in new landscaping projects.

Low, along with others on campus, hopes to increase drought awareness and continue to reduce domestic use.

“It starts with the small things,” Low said. “For example, Admissions will be getting a water bottle filling fountain so people won’t be asking for water bottles.”

From there, she will focus on raising awareness through education and programming that brings these issues to the forefront and in the hope of embodying a change among the students and staff on campus.

But it takes a team. According to Steele, different individuals handle waste from the point of generation, to collection, transportation and compaction before it even moves off campus. This begins, of course, with student awareness and education — and knowing what to recycle, what to compost and where to do so is a good place to start.