College campuses produce massive amounts of waste, but fortunately, many institutions of higher education across the country are working hard to reduce what they send to landfills via recycling, composting, and other initiatives.
Read on for a closer look at how two universities—one large and one small—are tackling waste on campus.
Cornell University’s main campus in upstate New York occupies 2,300 acres near the shores of Cayuga Lake. The university has an impressive waste management program, with more than 70 percent of all waste recycled or composted. Here’s how students, faculty, and staff are accomplishing this feat.
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Farm Services department oversees a robust agricultural composting program. Organic waste from 57 separate campus waste streams are trucked to a composting site near campus. This is a significant improvement over the previous arrangement, in which waste had to be transported 65 miles from campus to a landfill. The fleet of trucks runs on B20 biodiesel, containing 20 percent biodegradable fuel made of soybean or canola oil. In 2009 Farm Services received an Environmental Quality Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Finding New Life for Old Computers
Globally, electronic waste is a huge challenge because of the potentially toxic materials and heavy metals that are used to manufacture consumer electronics. These substances can leak into the ground from landfills, and they also pose a risk to recycling workers who dismantle e-waste to recover the valuable components.
The Cornell Computer Reuse Association (CCRA) is cutting e-waste at the campus level by collecting, refurbishing, and donating computers to both local and international humanitarian organizations, including groups in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and South Africa. CCRA also offers technical help to the organizations receiving its refurbished computers, so that people understand how to get the most use out of them.
Composting leftover food is more sustainable than sending it to a landfill, but sometimes this food is still fresh and ready to eat—so why should it go to waste? The Cornell chapter of the Food Recovery Network is currently working with campus dining facilities to donate unused prepared meals to the Friendship Donations Network, which feeds people in need throughout the region.
Reusing Clothes and Household Items
There’s a regular cycle on college campuses. In the fall, students return to school, bringing bedding, furniture, clothes, books, and household goods. At the end of the term, a mass exodus takes place as students leave for the summer, and many of the items they brought with them or purchased last fall are discarded.
Cornell Thrift is a campus group founded in 2015 to promote reuse of these clothes, electronics, household goods, and smaller furniture items. Besides reducing waste, the group also provides a more affordable way for students to get what they need. Their recently opened “free to give, free to take” market, Ezra’s Exchange, is like a Goodwill shop that functions without money—students can drop off unwanted items or take what they need, without charge.
College of the Atlantic
A small liberal arts college located on one of Maine’s many coastal islands, College of the Atlantic has a serious commitment to sustainability. In 2016 the Sierra Club ranked the institution first on its annual list of America’s Greenest Colleges, noting the campus is entirely powered by renewable energy and three-fourths of the faculty pursue sustainability-related research. The College of the Atlantic is also focused on waste minimization and recycling, as demonstrated in the efforts described here.
“Waste” vs. “Discarded Resources”
College of the Atlantic runs a recycling program that “reaches every floor of every building on campus,” making it easy for students, faculty, and staff to locate the right bin for whatever they need to toss. In addition, a composting program at campus dining facilities and farms generates six tons of compost from post-consumer waste and four tons from pre-consumer waste.
However, a big part of the campus’ waste management program focuses on communication—specifically, reframing the issue, thereby encouraging people to think differently about what we call “waste.” Since 2013 the college has replaced every reference to “waste” with the term “discarded resources” in order to promote recycling, reuse, and composting. By 2025 the college hopes to divert 90 percent of discarded resources from landfills and incinerators.
Discarded Resources Audit
You can’t reduce waste if you don’t know what and how much you’re wasting—that’s the general idea behind the campus’ annual Discarded Resources Audit. Students collect trash all around campus and sift through it, examining what’s being thrown away and what could have been recovered. During the most recent audit, students collected 835 pounds of waste over one week and found that just over 20 percent of it was truly “waste.” Half of it could have been composted, and the rest recycled or otherwise reused.
Ban on Bottled Water
Every year, as many as 38 billion plastic water bottles are thrown away, even though these items are recyclable. Bottled water also generates waste through the bottling and transportation processes as well. For these and other reasons, College of the Atlantic took the rather unusual step to stop buying, selling, accepting as a gift, or distributing containerized water. “Containerized” water in this sense includes bottles as well as jugs, cartons, and other single-use packages, according to the policy on the college’s website.