This post is a based on research and discussions that are informing the 2016 State of Sustainability report. Similar to the 2015 report released by Sightlines and the Sustainability Institute, the new report will be published in February and will highlight key sustainability metrics for higher education.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans create 254 million tons of trash (aka municipal solid waste) each year, or roughly 4.4 pounds a day per person. More than half of this goes to landfills or incinerators, but through reuse, recycling and composting much this waste can be diverted. Proper diversion of waste helps reduce space needed in landfills, conserves and protects natural resources, and limits pollution associated with raw materials extraction.
While the creation of waste on campus brings challenges, it also provides opportunities. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) offers colleges and university four categories (Academics, Engagement, Operations, and Planning & Administration) in which to earn credits towards sustainability ratings. STARS is quickly becoming the gold standard for sustainability reporting in higher education, despite its labor- and time-intensiveness. In the Operations category from version 2.1, there is a section for waste which has three credits (waste minimization and diversion, construction and demolition waste diversion, and hazardous waste management) worth a total of 10 points. Two of these credits will be discussed further below.
For a minimum requirement, STARS requests that an institution “has data on the weight of materials recycled, composted, donated/re-sold, and disposed in a landfill or incinerator; and numbers of campus users.” STARS reporters divert, on average, 38% of waste, which is slightly higher than the diversion rate of 34% reported by the EPA. Despite a solid showing against the national average, there is evidence that higher education can do better.
“Higher Ed has the potential to perform significantly better than nationwide averages,” said Heather Finnegan, Sightlines Account Manager and sustainability expert. “Recyclemania data shows that with a concerted effort, it can be done!”
Each spring, Recyclemania encourages campuses across North America to promote recycling and waste reduction practices. This friendly 8-week competition (see their mission statement and awesome Waste Reduction Trophy here) has impressive results: in 2015, over 390 participating institutions and 5.8 million students and staff collectively diverted 80 million tons of waste from landfills. On average, competitors diverted 35% of waste, while the top 10 institutions diverted between 68-97%.
As technology becomes a more integrated part of daily life, a new category of waste (called electronic or e-waste) has gained importance in the waste/recycling conversation. E-waste, discarded consumer and business electronic equipment, currently represents about 2% of U.S. While this is a small portion of total waste, e-waste accounts for 70% of toxic waste and is comprised of valuable components, including rare earth metals, plastics and glass. This creates an important opportunity for recycling, which can reduce pollution and greenhouse gas associated with raw material extraction and manufacturing, as well as reduce pollution linked to disposal in landfills. Rare earth metal recycling is still in its infancy, though some companies are overcoming the current challenges.
In its minimum requirements for this credit, STARS calls out an institution’s strategies to “recycle, reuse and/or refurbish electronic waste” separately from their handling of all other hazardous wastes. When it comes to e-waste, nearly all states have regulations that require specialized handling of this waste for institutions of a certain size. The need to meet regulatory guidelines has urged the majority of colleges and universities to establish formal policies for the management of their institutionally generated waste (see chart). However, there is still room for improvement when it comes to providing safe disposal options for student-owned electronics. Many institutions have created programs that cater to the entire campus community. For example, in 2015, the University of Chicago started an on-demand e-waste recycling program for all campus constituents. Kalamazoo College in Michigan collects e-waste and works with certified local e-waste handlers to ensure these items don’t end up in a landfill. And, according to their website, their recycling department does its due diligence to “determine the best way to preserve fuel (and avoid carbon emissions), promote the local economy by supporting local businesses, protect worker and environmental healthy by only dealing with certified businesses that do not export waste to be handled in areas with lower health and pollution standards, and accomplish all of this with efficient use of funds.”
Recycling: Not Just An Environmental Success!
The awareness and commitment to recycling continues to grow steadily as shown by an increase from only 10% recycling of municipal solid waste in 1980 to a rate of nearly 35% in 2013. While many recycling programs grew out of efforts to help protect the planet, there is a growing notion that recycling can offset costs and maybe even generate revenue. To learn how one institution is managing a successful recycling program that is almost profitable, please read this article from Tony Johnson, Sr. Executive Director, Logistics and Support Services, at the University of Alabama.