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The Zero Goal

How One University is Stopping More Than Half Their Waste From Entering Landfills

It’s lunchtime on a Thursday, and the table is heaping with food. Brown bananas are piled on top of soggy dinner rolls. A mound of moldy lettuce is scooped up by a pair of gloved hands and tossed from the table into a bin, where it rests on top of pounds of food waste. This is not the typical lunch table. This table is full of food that has been through the University of Oregon’s dining halls, but didn’t make it into a mouth. Here, food waste, along with other forms of municipal waste commonly thought of as garbage, does not go directly into a trashcan.

The University of Oregon has implemented a campus-wide program that is solely focused on reducing the amount of waste produced, and it’s working. In the past five years, the UO Zero Waste Program has stopped more than half of the school’s overall waste from ending up in landfills, and that number is on the rise.

The Zero Waste Program focuses not only on providing resources so students recycle materials correctly, but also on educating these students on the long term importance of recycling.

“The college environment fosters opportunities for engagement and real life experiences that students can carry with them after college,” said Karyn Kaplan, the Zero Waste Program Manager. “The real purpose of a college education is to create good citizens.”

College is the first time many students have felt independence. One of the new factors of this independence is that students are now able to choose how they consume and dispose of products.

College campuses are full of new ideas. Students are introduced to new concepts from new people more than ever before. They may develop new values that differ or reject values that they have had throughout their childhoods. At this point in their lives, they are open to embracing new practices, such as recycling, that they will carry with them after they graduate.

The Zero Waste Program is a response to the world’s trash crisis. According to a report published by The World Bank in 2012, 1.3 billion tons of municipal waste are produced every year, and this number is expected to almost double by 2025, just seven years from now. The United States alone produces 5.6 pounds of trash per person each day, which amount to 254 million tons of trash annually, more than any other country.

Depressing statistics like this pushed students to take action. The UO Zero Waste Program was created after months of volunteer-based organizations that worked to implement recycling throughout the university’s campus. In 1990, Karyn Kaplan gathered about 10 students from an Introduction to Environmental Studies class. At the time, there was little recycling happening on campus; this group volunteered to combat that issue. In the year that followed, the group accomplished many things, including eliminating disposable cups from the Residential Halls and replacing them with reusable mugs (one per student), which saved the university

$30,000 in cup costs each year. “ The students were immersed in the success of the project,” Kaplan said.

One year later, after trials, meetings, letters, and reports, the Zero Waste Program was institutionalized in March 1991. “The UO Zero Waste Program is a direct result of the hard work of many students, who cared enough to put themselves aside and be proactive and determined in working towards the future,” Kaplan said. After 10 years, the program had reached a 50 percent diversion rate, meaning that half of the university’s waste was not going into a landfill.

In 2012, the Zero Waste Program rebranded, and became the official University of Oregon sponsored program. The program has since improved its marketing and outreach strategies to become more efficient.

Today, The Zero Waste Program approaches the issue of excessive garbage from three angles.

The team members educate students throughout the year at events on how to reduce consumption. The reduction of items consumed directly relates to a reduction in waste produced.

The program also helps students access materials that may be reused instead of thrown away after one use. This includes reusable stainless-steel water bottles instead of plastic bottles, tupperware containers instead of ziplock bags, and metal utensils instead of disposable ones.

Finally, when something cannot be reused, the Zero Waste Program teaches students how to properly recycle materials so contributing to landfills is avoided.

There are dozens of recycling units set up throughout campus. Each unit has separate bins that hold different types of waste: paper, landfill, compost, plastic, metal, and glass. These recycling stations are designed specifically to fulfil the disposal needs in that section of the university. For example, a recycling center in the university’s dining hall has large bins designated to compost from food waste, while a recycling center in the university's School of Journalism has bins that separate white paper from mixed paper, and no compost section. According to the program director, separating the material early on in the recycling process saves time and money, which allows the program to be more efficient with its budget. It also helps attain the highest market value for products.

“For example,” Kaplan says, “if we put all the materials together, the paper would get liquid on it and it could only be marketed at the lowest market and environmental value.” Keeping the materials seperate helps minimize contamination that can make it difficult, or in some cases impossible, to recycle materials.

Throughout the week, Zero Waste employees go on routes around campus and pick up the bins from their recycling stations using either the program vans or walking. After the collection, all of the waste materials are brought back to the program’s headquarters, just across the road from main campus. Here, each bin is dumped onto a sorting table. Employees line up on either side of the table and sort through each piece of recycling or trash, ensuring that all materials end up in the proper compartment where they can be properly disposed of or recycled.

Sorting in the Zero Waste headquarters is more specific than the initial materials separation on campus. Compost goes to the outside sorting station, where it is separated based on food and non-food compost. Glass is separated first on whether or not it can be deposited, then by color. Paper and cardboard are put in a different area. Materials that can be functional in their current state, such as three-ring binders and reusable water bottles, are stored and given back to students. After all materials have been sorted, they are sent to different recycling companies. Refunds from the cans and bottles go to the program’s operations budget. All of the school’s paper recycling goes to International Paper. The compost is delivered to Rexius, a local compost and garden center that buys compost and sells mulch to the community.

While all of this helps divert tons of waste from unnecessarily entering landfills, there is still room to grow. Actual Zero Waste is achieved when 90 percent of all waste is diverted from entering landfills or incinerators. “We’re currently diverting 55 percent of campus waste,” said Bret Jensen, the program’s Zero Waste Coordinator. Some years the diversion rate dips a bit, but most years the number continues to gradually increase. “There is still room for improvement, but that number has been on a steady rise.”

According to the UO Zero Waste Program’s Materials Tracking Report for the 2016-2017 Fiscal Year, the UO material diversion rate was 55.40 percent. This is a .37 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. The report also shows that the program recovered $16,866.15 worth of Reusable Office Supplies in the year.

Out of the 3308.46 total tons of materials collected, 1832.74 of those tons were recovered and did not enter a landfill, which is 76.9 tons more than the program diverted the previous year. This is the second largest amount of materials recovered in the program’s history, close behind the 2014-2015 recovery of 1995.67 tons.

Jensen, who has been with the program since April 2016, shared that the number one challenge the program faces to reaching its 90 percent diversion goal is the lack of awareness people have when consuming products. The Zero Waste Program does a lot to divert materials after they have been used, but the goal is to educate people so they make wise, environmentally conscious decisions when purchasing items, which stops materials that aren’t recyclable from entering the system in the first place. “Some materials simply cannot be recycled,” Jensen said. “We cannot do much at that point.”

Cups are one of the main materials that limit the program from reaching that 90 percent diversion goal. People often consider them recyclable because they are made out of paper. However, cups are typically coated with polyethylene, which is used to make them waterproof. Unfortunately, the polyethylene is also non-recyclable in most situations. Other plastic materials, such as utensils, lids and straws are also limitations to reaching a higher diversion rate. “Less than 2% of all plastics produced are currently recyclable,” Kaplan said. The program is currently working on marketing strategies that help consumers better understand exactly where their plastic materials should go.

Furthermore, while the diversion rate has steadily increased throughout the years, the total amount of materials collected has been on the rise as well.

This is where the educational aspect of the Zero Waste Program become crucial. The program has a full-time educational specialist who was hired six years ago. He focuses on informing students about the different layers of Zero Waste, and how to make conscientious decisions that will help decrease the amount of total waste collected and increase the diversion rate. One of Kaplan’s wishes for the program is that “Zero Waste is valued from every inch of campus.”

The combination of education and convenience makes this program work. Students who are new to campus are introduced to the Zero Waste Program the first time they go to a trash receptacle to throw something away. Megan Kiernan, a junior from California studying psychology, shared that the program has changed the way she thinks about consumption in her three years on campus. “Where I’m from, people just didn’t recycle,” Kiernan said. “Of course, I always knew that it was encouraged, but it just didn’t seem like a priority. Being on this campus has completely shattered that concept.”

Jeff Ziglinski, the Zero Waste Coordinator, was the first paid employee to work for the campus recycling in 1991, when he attended the UO as a sociology student. Ten years later, Ziglinski returned to UO to work on the staff as the Compost Specialist. His story echoes that of Kiernan’s. “Before I came here, I didn’t recycle,” Ziglinski said. “Being on campus made me a hearty recycler.”

Ziglinski headed up the pilot compost program on campus in the early 2000s, which was a huge leap for the Zero Waste Program. “Before that, food used to be thrown away.” Adding compost to the university’s program helped divert tons of waste annually. Compost creates mulch, which nourishes the earth and provides an environment for crops to grow. Not only is the Zero Waste Program stopping waste from entering landfills, it is utilizing this waste to create a physical, positive difference in the community.

“I can’t imagine what it would look like if we didn’t do what we do.”