Magazine article University Business

Waste Watching: New Approaches to Reducing Campus Waste, Increasing Recycling and Keeping Facilities Spending in Check

Magazine article University Business

Waste Watching: New Approaches to Reducing Campus Waste, Increasing Recycling and Keeping Facilities Spending in Check

Article excerpt

For many colleges and universities, there used to be gold in garbage. Or, at least, there was some revenue to go along with the recycling stream. But two years ago, the whole landfill landscape changed.

"When China shifted its policy, it affected almost every school," says Travis Freidman, sustainability and energy manager at the University of Puget Sound in Washington. Informally known as "the green wall," but formally called Operation Green Fence, the policy China enacted in 2013 bans "foreign rubbish," including recycling waste and metal scrap materials.

Officials at many U.S. colleges and universities (along with organizations in other industries) had been generating revenue by shipping waste to China, says Freidman.

For example, before Chinas change, Puget Sound was getting about $55 per ton for cardboard and $45 per ton for loose paper, plastics and aluminum. Today, the university is getting $1 per ton for the cardboard from recycling haulers, and no money at all for the comingled items.

As campuses have grown, the problem has grown. "When you think about the multiple waste streams on campus, you can see why this is an issue," says Jennifer deHart, staff engineer and sustainability coordinator at Virginia Military Institute.

The sudden drop in revenue left many schools scrambling to refine their waste and recycling policies--but with adversity also comes opportunity. Some institutions have implemented more innovative waste management practices, including incorporating technology into the mix.

"What you're seeing," Freidman says, "are colleges and universities dealing with their waste in new ways, and that's definitely worth watching."

Recycling revamp

One of the biggest changes is that recycling, which used to produce revenue, has shifted to the expense side of the balance sheet.

Pickups, sorting and maintenance--all of these factors drive up the cost of getting recycled goods off a campus. Although some schools might see a modest return on some materials, such as scrap, it's usually only about enough to break even, Freidman says.

That's where colleges are innovating to spread awareness and lower costs. Puget Sound students created a mobile app that lets anyone with a smartphone "report" a recycling bin that's full. A small QR code on the side of the bin can be scanned so the facilities department can pinpoint its exact location. The app is in beta testing right now, but once it's widely available, facilities staff can skip regular pickups and focus on other tasks. Also, with trend-tracking capability, the school will be able to tell where recycling bins can be consolidated, or moved out of areas where they are not being used.

"When you're constantly running all over campus to pick up recycling and you're emptying bins with just a few items in them, that's not efficient," Freidman says. "Also, this is a great way to get students and faculty involved in the effort to recycle more."

Other schools are working harder to separate materials to take advantage of any market fluctuations that might increase the return on scrap metal or plastics, for example. Renee Theroux-Keech, interim director of facilities management and planning at Eastern Connecticut State University, says they try to recycle as much as possible, with a separate dumpster for scrap metal.

There are also plans to create a process for recycling mattresses. In general, mattresses are not a huge addition to the waste stream, Theroux-Keech says, but their cumbersome size often requires separate garbage pickups, which costs money.

Recycling can sometimes be hindered by location. VMI's deHart says her institution is far away from recycling facilities that take plastic, glass and cardboard, although it does have access to closer scrap metal recycling.

Because of that, officials work with local municipal programs and follow those guidelines for recycled materials, but that means they don't get any revenue from recycling. …

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