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Business Officer Magazine
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Rethink Your Trash

Creative strategies can modify behavior and move an institution toward the goal of zero waste on campus.

By Karla Hignite

The annual RecycleMania competition that takes place on college and university campuses across the United States has grown steadily in popularity and participation over the years-one indicator of the movement toward zero-waste status being pursued by more higher education institutions. Pacific Lutheran University estimates that it currently diverts up to 70 percent of its waste stream resulting from enhanced efforts to repurpose, recycle, and compost.

PLU is among a growing number of institutions taking concerted actions like changing the signage on bins from "trash" to "landfill" to remind members of the campus community to think about what they are tossing aside and where else it might belong instead. The university has added a "garbology" event to its annual calendar where students inspect bins from across campus, sorting items tossed aside to assess their true value as "trash" and to measure the waste that should have been diverted elsewhere.

In addition to becoming a zero-waste campus, Pacific Lutheran—a signatory of the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment—also has the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2020. Read more about institutions pursuing this goal in "Going for Zero," in the June 2014 issue of Business Officer.

Among other efforts PLU's sustainability team has introduced to raise the level of consciousness surrounding waste is a voluntary "can the can" program to encourage faculty and staff to make more thoughtful decisions about what they throw away by swapping standard-sized garbage bins with miniature cans and requiring participants to sort their waste. The university's green tray program helps students organize their dining-related waste as recycling, compost, or trash. "All these initiatives focus attention on what gets thrown away and provide a strong visual that fits well with our other carbon-reduction strategies, which are often more opaque," says Sheri Tonn, PLU's vice president of finance and operations.

Avoiding the Landfill

Zero waste is also an overarching sustainability goal for Arizona State University (ASU), with a concerted focus on rethinking products and actions associated with daily routine consumption as well as with game days and other large campuswide events. In one example, when freshman first arrive they are shown where on campus they can recycle and compost, and at the end of each semester, a "ditch the dumpster" event collects items students are prone to toss. Materials are sorted for recycling, reuse, and donation.

"Our primary goal is to keep everything we can from heading to the landfill," says John Riley, ASU's associate vice president of university business services and university sustainability operations officer. ASU's zero-waste efforts aren't focused solely on diversion. "We have an aversion program to ensure procured items come to us with minimal impact. We want to minimize bringing on to campus anything that adds to our waste stream." In some instances suppliers are contractually obligated to return to campus to claim their packaging, notes Riley.

In addition to national competitions, many campuses are coming up with their own unique events, initiatives, and training opportunities to spread the word about what is, and isn't, waste—and where to put it once you know. To that point, rethinking the waste stream on college and university campuses will require rethinking the campus waste infrastructure to give students, faculty, and staff every opportunity to put the right thing in the right place.

Among helpful resources available, check out the "Zero Waste Campus Toolkit," a cooperative project of the University of Oregon Campus Zero Waste Program and the College & University Recycling Coalition.

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.