How You Can Create A Zero Waste City & University By 2020

Colleges and universities are anything but islands unto themselves. Examples abound of higher educational institutions collaborating with their local governments to advance the cause of sustainability.

The City of San Francisco has garnered world fame for its sustainability practices, and so I asked myself, “Do colleges also live up to that reputation?”  As a recent graduate of the city’s largest higher educational institution, San Francisco State University (SFSU), I know that the City and San Francisco State University (SF State) are working hand in hand to send zero waste to the landfill by 2020. This means that essentially all of San Francisco’s garbage will be recycled or composted. This is a little more ambitious than the systemwide California State University goal, which is for California State University (CSU) campuses to reduce their solid waste disposal rate by 80% by 2020.

Putting anything compostable (food, soiled paper products, plants, wood, bioplastics) in the landfill contributes to climate change because it creates toxic methane.  While there’s currently no CSU time horizon to move to zero waste, the school system has committed to eventually reach it, with individual campuses like SF State, among others, making stellar progress towards that goal. Last year, Sacramento State University received an award for The Closed Loop Comprehensive Organic Waste Diversion Program (a comprehensive and cost-saving organic waste diversion program that turns leaves, lawn clippings and wood chips into a clean fuel). That fuel (a bio-compressed natural gas) powers a fleet of complimentary campus shuttles. The project aims to decrease Sacramento State’s dependence on fossil fuels, reduce the amount of lawn waste sent to the landfill, and help close the loop on campus consumption.

The University of California (UC) system’s timeline is on par with SF State’s. The UC adopted a zero waste resolution in 2008 with their complete diversion goal aimed for 2020.The system is already diverting 69% of its solid waste from landfills. Pilot zero waste programs now exist on most UC campuses, and some zero waste initiatives have become standard practice. Initial efforts have targeted the largest sources of waste, such as major events and building construction and demolition. All football and basketball events at UC Berkeley and all football events at UC Davis are now zero waste events. UC Santa Barbara holds an annual zero-waste weekend at its stadium for the men’s soccer game. UC Riverside achieved a 99% construction waste diversion rate from two capital projects, demonstrating a best practice. UC Riverside requires contractors to use the campus’ waste hauler, have appropriate bins on the construction site, and requires contractors to meet recycling requirements.

To explore the SF State’s progress towards towards reducing waste and composting, I got in touch with their Office of Sustainability, otherwise known as Sustainable SF State. Nick Kordesch, Sustainability Specialist, briefed me that a combination of new infrastructure and educational and reuse initiatives are now in motion to transform the campus into a zero waste institution by 2020.

Can’t Go Zero Waste Without Signs & Bins

Photo by Sustainable SF State

For some people that are steeped in a throwaway culture, infrastructure to reduce waste and encourage composting is crucial for our transition towards a zero waste society. For SF State, this can come in small, simple steps such as adding new signage for outdoor bins. “We worked with a graphic design class to create new signage for our outdoor recycling, compost, and trash bins,” he said to me. “We asked them to help us create signage that was easier to read and communicated which items belong in each bin. They did a great job and we are about to order those for the whole campus.” Anyone can create customizable signs of what your community can compost and recycle.

When SF State hosted the 2015 California Higher Education Sustainability Conference (CHESC), SF State weighed all waste from the event to see how well the campus sorted compost, trash, and recycling.

In addition to signage, Nick said SF State is working to add compost bins to its restrooms. “We needed to add compost bins to our academic buildings. Our custodial staff was limited and we couldn’t add many bins. Our solution has been to remove trash bins from all the restrooms and replace them with compost bins. The waste in the bathrooms is almost all compostable paper towels so this has worked well. Our custodial team collaborated with Office of Sustainability interns to make this happen.”

Charging For Printing

Like some colleges, SF State produces large amounts of print waste. SoSF State just switched to a managed print service, which means that the campus now pays a company to manage its printers. “It has cut down on the number of printers on campus, which has resulted in more efficient use of toners and fewer printers being safely disposed as electronic waste (e-waste).  Since the service charges for printing, we have an incentive to be more careful about what we print,” said Nick.

Zero Waste Educators

While bins of all sorts have spread throughout the campus, people might not always know what goes in each bin. That is when SF State’s waste bin educators come in handy. “Our Associated Students’ Environmental Resource Center employs waste bin educators at the start of each school year to help teach new students about our recycling and compost programs,” said Nick.

Weigh The Waste

The SF State Dining Services also does a lot of educational programming about reducing food waste. According to Nick, “We have a program called Weigh The Waste where we show students how much food was wasted each day. We also started donating excess food to a food bank through the Food Recovery Network.”

Everyone Loves Free (Used) Things

The phrase, “There is no away to throw something away,” sums up SF State’s initiatives to promote the reuse of old and unwanted items. “We have an email list where campus staff and faculty post their unwanted office items and equipment to encourage reuse,” said Nick. Other initiatives include ideas as simple setting up bins to donate to thrift stores and promoting clothing swaps.

As part of their “No Bikes Left Behind” program, the Associated Students is collecting donated bikes and giving them out to students in need. “It helps reduce waste and encourages green transportation,” said Nick.

And Of Course There Are Water Bottle Fillers

Photo by Sustainable SF State

SF State has also been installing water bottle fillers and giving all incoming residential students free reusable water bottles to cut down on bottled water waste.

2020: Reaching A Grand Goal By Recycling Surprising Things

Photo by Sustainable SF State

SF State has been steadily increasing its recycling and compost rate. As of 2009, SF State diverted over 71%  of its waste from the landfill.  About 80%  of waste has been diverted from the landfill citywide, and can increase to 90% when people recycle and compost properly.  

With the unique city-university partnership efforts and all the progress that has been made on campus thus far, I asked Nick how difficult it would be to reach their goal in time. “It’s going to be a challenge for us to get to zero waste by 2020,” he replied. “We need to be doing better education about how to recycle and compost. There are also certain items that we can’t recycle or compost that are sold on campus or get brought here—plastic bags, candy wrappers, and chip bags to name a few.”   

Luckily, people almost anywhere in the world can now recycle them at Terracycle.  Those in the Bay Area can recycle almost anything at RecycleWhere.  And people in San Francisco can recycle plastic bags and non-refrigerated boxes for drinks and soups in the City’s blue bins.  SF State also has a Sustainable Move Out campaign where students drop off items on-campus to be donated to thrift stores, food banks, or be recycled.

SF State’s partnership with San Francisco is done by working with the city’s Department of the Environment and their local waste hauler, Recology, on increasing their diversion rate. Recology handles the processing of San Francisco’s compost, recycling and landfill trash, and “is also investing in research and development to make it easier to recycle certain items,” Nick adds.

2020 is now less than three years away. While it is too early to call the “race,” the results of the SF State and San Francisco joint effort are commendable and worth exploring in your community.

Posted in _Featured, CSU Campuses, General Sustainability News, Magazine.

For me, a San Francisco Bay Area local, social and environmental advocacy is deeply personal. I have a strong sense of place shaped by my region’s majestic setting before California’s interior waterways and the vast Pacific Ocean. Raised in a working class, immigrant Bengali family, I developed a checkered identity and a knack to challenge dominant narratives of our world and society at an early age. My thirst for equity and justice came of age when I entered higher education and was introduced to its inspiring communities of organizers, their tireless work, and of others around the greater Bay Area. An advocate of many trades, I campaigned for fossil fuel divestment in the halls of San Francisco State University, and I marched to bring awareness to climate and environmental justice issues in my ancestral South Asia, and along the refinery corridor of the Northeast San Francisco Bay, where my hometown of Benicia, CA resides. A storyteller at heart, I have written for the Earth Island Journal, and have performed writing, communications, and social media outreach roles for Sacred Fire Foundation, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Bioneers, and Save The Bay.  

School: San Francisco State University, 2014; Humboldt State University (expected graduation 2019)
Past roles with CSSC: 2014 Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence Organizer
Major: B.A. Environmental Studies (Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice); M.A. Candidate, Environment and Community
Hometown: Benicia, CA