Collaborating On A Grand Goal: A Zero Waste City And University By 2020

SF State is working with Recology on increasing their waste diversion rate. Recology, which handles the processing of San Francisco’s compost, recycling and landfill trash, is investing in research and development to make it easier to recycle certain items. Photo: Recology

By. Daniel Adel

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 if this reputation also holds true at its colleges and universities? As a recent graduate of the city’s largest higher educational institution, San Francisco State University, I know that the city and the university 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 CSU goal, which is for CSU campuses to reduce their solid waste disposal rate by 80 percent by 2020.

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 their “The Closed Loop: A Comprehensive Organic Waste Diversion Program,” which is 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, also reducing the amount of lawn waste sent to the landfill and helping close the loop on campus consumption.

The University of California 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 percent 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 the recycling requirements.

To explore the SF State community’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, SF State’s 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.

New Infrastructure

SF State hosted the 2015 California Higher Education Sustainability Conference. All waste generated by the event was saved and weighed it to see how well the campus sorted compost, trash, and recycling. Photo: Sustainable SF State.

Steeped in a largely throwaway culture, infrastructure to reduce waste and encourage composting is crucial for our transition towards a zero waste society. For Nick and the SF State community, 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.”

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, but because our custodial staff is limited we couldn’t add many bins to the buildings. 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.”

Like other university campuses, SF State produces large amounts of print waste. The tackle this, SF State has 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 fewer printers being thrown away for e-waste and lower toner waste, ” he said. “Since the service charges for printing, we have an incentive to be more careful about what we print.”

Zero Waste Education

The SF State Dining Services’ Weigh The Waste program shows students how much food is wasted each day. Photo: Associated Students Environmental Resource Center.

While bins of all sorts have spread throughout the campus, students, faculty, administrators, and others may not always know what goes in what bin, especially as labels like “compost,” “recycle,” and “trash” can be vague. 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.

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

Reuse Initiatives

SF State is installing water bottle fillers around its campus and giving all incoming residential students free reusable water bottles to cut down on bottled water waste. Photo: Sustainable SF State

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 goodwill bins and promoting clothing swaps. “Our Associated Students’ Environmental Resource Center has been holding clothing swaps to encourage reuse.”

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. 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.

2020: A Grand Goal

SF State’s “Sustainable Move Out” days at the end of Spring semester. Residential students can hand anything they don’t want to Sustainable SF State so they can be donated it to Goodwill, Food Banks, or recycled. Photo: 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. The diversion rate is currently at about 80% citywide, and can increase to 90% when all when all material is sent to the correct bins.

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, chip bags, and juice box packaging to name a few.”

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-San Francisco joint effort are commendable and worth exploring at other institutions and their municipalities.

Posted in _Featured, CSSC Blog, CSU Campuses, General Sustainability News.