Campuses Save Money and the Environment With Zero-Waste Events

Photo credit: Shane Snipes 2010

“Waste is uneconomical,” says Steven Brown, a senior from Colorado State University. It is clear from Brown’s voice that in his mind, this is an obvious statement. He is not making an impassioned plea. He is merely stating a fact. And it seems that increasingly, colleges are beginning to see things the same way.

Shane Snipes, a self-described “eco-adventurer” who has undertaken a roadtrip across America with the goal of engaging people from across the country in conversation about Sustainability, has seen the ramifications of the old, landfill-centric mindset first-hand.  All across the country, small towns surrounded by empty land often choose not to recycle, instead creating huge garbage dumps just outside of the cities.

Many of these towns do operate under state mandates to meet minimum recycling standards — facilities for recycling newspaper, for example, are freqently available. However, the models most frequently employed still require individuals to collect, store and transport recyclables to city-run drop-offs or recycling centers, which decreases motivation to participate. Trash pick-up, however, is usually convenient and often free. Thus, there is an inherent tendency to create waste unchecked, says Snipes.

Photo by Flickr user, used with Creative Commons License.
Photo by Flickr user, used with Creative Commons License.

The key to reversing that trend is to reverse the motivations, and that’s where colleges and universities’  realization of the cost savings of waste-reduction is poised to play an important role.

“Universities are like small towns,” says Sally Davis, a second year student at Hawaii University, where financial motivators have led the school to cut the volume of waste produced. “We can control what comes and goes if we choose to do so. Reducing our waste to nothing requires simple steps that have been laid out before us by other pioneers.”

There are many ways for schools to profit by reducing waste. One of the most obvious is that less waste means fewer trash pick-ups, but it doesn’t stop there. According to retired Michigan State professor Dr. Bob Suzuki, by carefully selecting the products that are purchased and used on-campus and finding ways to use the byproducts in inventive ways, a school can not only reduce or eliminate the volume of what it sends to a landfill, but create jobs and services at the same time.

Illustration credit: Shane Snipes 2010

Zero-waste” is the ultimate goal of such endeavors: avoiding sending trash to the landfill altogether. Instead, the zero-waste campus avoids the use of “cradle-to-grave” products — products which after use must end up in a landfill — and instead adopts “cradle-to-cradle” products that can be reused, recycled or composted.

For many schools, these zero-waste events are the first target they achieve in becoming a zero-waste campus. We reported on Ohio State University’s recent homecoming, in which the school’s facilities department partnered with a local non-profit and the Alumni Association to divert 96% of the waste from the landfill. Nearly three quarters of the waste generated was composted, and another fourth was recycled.

According to University of California-Davis, such measures — if applied to all campus operations — could avoid an estimated 6,779 tons sent to the landfill per year at UC-Davis alone. In 2007, they set the goal of becoming a zero-waste campus by 2020, and to that end have begun encouraging students, administrators and faculty to keep events waste-free. Their website has a great How-To page for hosting zero-waste events, and the school has also created an extensive guide on the subject for facilities managers.

Harvard University has developed a similar strategy for the large events they hold on campus. Their website describes what zero-waste events look like at Harvard:

“Zero waste” events involve efforts by organizers to have no landfillable waste. All trash is either recyclable (soda cans and water bottles), compostable (leftover food, napkins, and compostable dishes, cups, and utensils), or reusable (serving utensils and platters). Sometimes factors beyond an organizer’s control (such as the caterer sending plastic forks) prevent an event from being completely zero waste, but most of the Harvard events mentioned in this article produced no trash.

The compost collected at events is sent to a high heat composting facility that accepts all food waste (including meat and dairy products) and also compostable dishware, which cannot go into household compost bins. As an additional benefit, Harvard Landscaping Services has begun buying compost from this facility for use on campus grounds.

For more information about what other schools have done, or for inspiration on how to plan a zero-waste event at your school, check out the resources below:

By: Shane Snipes and Campus Ecology Staff

Shane Snipes is an eco-adventurer for and has recorded talks with more than 720 people since April 2010. He holds a degree in International Communication from NC State University & an MBA from Vytautas Magnus University. Find him on Twitter here.