Academic institutions can act as local sustainability hubs and pioneer new ways of thinking and doing.
The idea of zero waste is gaining more and more attention from citizens, companies and decision-makers alike. The approach is also becoming particularly popular across universities worldwide as academic institutions are striving to lead the new sustainability movement.
The premise of zero waste couldn’t be simpler, which is also the secret to its success: turn linear systems into circular, eliminate waste, and sustain value whenever possible. Practices like prevention, reuse, upcycling, banning disposables and several other simple tips are there to help.
In many cases, universities can act as local sustainability hubs. When it comes to zero waste they are often the ones to pioneer the movement locally, be it the first composting facility or biogas plant in a city or else a scientific drive to replace plastics.
A few features make universities stand out from other institutions: they are small enough to keep it all under control while allowing for a relatively quick change; they have interlinked infrastructure with a stable number of residents; they have effective communication channels; they boast the possibility to set internal rules to be followed by everyone; and they have a strong intellectual climate.
However, universities also face the tough challenge of high expectations towards their environmental commitments and the ever-rising importance of sustainability for their success in global ratings. Universities often crave to be perceived as future-oriented institutions and zero waste is a chance to act on this desire.
Across the world, the number of universities pledging to go zero waste is rising, and considering the emerging recognition of links between waste, biodiversity loss and climate change the trend is likely to continue well into the future. It’s still hard to find a single zero waste university in the world, but we might start to see a few by next year.
The University of Texas at Austin has set out to become a zero waste university by 2020, striving for no less than being a “national model university” in the field. The Sustainability Master Plan adopted in 2016 and revised last year connects waste to all spheres of university life, starting from water and energy conservation and stretching to sustainability culture and collaborations. Its overall focus is on the “highest and best use of materials” whenever possible, which allows for continuous improvement over time.
Among activities carried out by the university are optimizing accessibility to resource recovery infrastructure, improving the recycling of hard-to-recycle materials and lab-related waste, as well as supporting a dedicated team of zero waste interns. The university also uses its Trash-to-Treasure project to collect donated items at the end of every semester and sell them to new students for $1 each.
Another bright example of zero waste ambition comes from the University of California Santa Cruz. The university puts a large focus on communicating the serious nature of waste challenges while offering positive visions of an alternative future by inviting everyone on campus to join the #MyLastTrash pledge. The pledge includes following simple lifestyle tweaks among students to reduce their waste footprints. While the effect of such “soft” approaches is often hard to measure, the university is already diverting 69% of its waste from landfills and composting all of its food waste.
Still, zero waste is rarely an endeavor that can be accomplishes with ease. The 20-year-long journey undertaken by Stanford University shows how achieving zero waste is a constant evolution. Starting from simple recycling measures back in 1998, the university has so far achieved a 63% rate of reuse, recycling, and composting. It’s also running an extensive My Green Cardinal program to support conservation behaviors and aims to achieve its zero waste goals by 2030.
A number of other universities have also chosen to zero in on particular waste issues of concern. Tulane University in Louisiana issues reusable food containers, making it obligatory for students to use them when purchasing to-go meals, which otherwise would produce tons of disposables. Machines that exchange dirty containers for clean ones are available on the spot. The university strives to make a zero waste culture a new normal while using disposables is to be considered to be in “bad taste.”
Many other universities are kick-starting their zero waste efforts through the opening of zero waste initiatives. One recently started functioning at Keele University and was launched by students aiming to cut down on the use of disposables across the campus and bring about a culture of responsible consumption.
What unites most of those initiatives is avoiding reliance on technology and infrastructure alone. Instead, leveraging the power of social interaction and student involvement are seen as the way forward. And while there is still a long way to go before zero waste becomes mainstream, many institutions and efforts, public and private, are out there to change this.
The Post-Landfill Action Network is bringing together expertise from top-achieving universities to develop manuals for an effective and smooth transition towards zero waste in university contexts. Meanwhile, certifications like TRUE Zero Waste from the U.S. Green Building Council allow universities to adopt a holistic approach in line with the most ambitious zero waste standards. And for students who want to become pioneers in their campus communities, zero waste bloggers are always there with good pieces of advice well-suited for college life.
Along with these activities, the scientific contribution to zero waste remains as important as ever. Universities are at the foreground of shaping our understanding of circular business models, exploring zero waste packaging alternatives, and critically assessing whether any practice deemed as sustainable actually contributes to the circular economy.
Universities are also a major contributor to any expert-led zero waste initiatives, be it city-wide circular economy scans or a global circular economy assessment. As the authors of recent research on universities’ contributions to the circular economy note, academic institutions posses a “hidden curriculum” for both behavioral changes within the university as well as for educating change agents that “raise the bar” of any sustainability performance.
With such manifold actions the future of zero waste at universities is looking brighter by the day. Once this potential gets fully brought into life, faster transitions towards truly sustainable societies will follow.