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 China’s 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.”
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.
The campus e-waste conundrum
When it comes to a college waste stream, no materials are more challenging than electronics.
Although it’s possible to generate a modest amount of revenue from recycling, it’s often a break-even situation because of the processing fees involved when sensitive data has to be wiped from digital equipment.
“E-waste” comprises more than computers—it can be anything with an electrical cord, such as a toaster or a TV, says Tom Miller, senior vice president of operations at Progressive Waste Solutions.
About 1 percent of college garbage is e-waste, Miller says. The materials require a separate pickup and specialized handling; the components can’t simply be put in municipal landfills due to chemicals that might be inside each unit. “Definitely, it’s not cost effective to dispose of these items [properly],” he says. “But it’s the right thing to do.”
To make the most of a pickup, many schools are creating e-waste collection areas or facilities. Jennifer deHart, staff engineer and sustainability coordinator at Virginia Military Institute, says the college sets a “clean-out deadline” for the campus and opens its annual collection to the entire county.
In 2014, the institute discarded almost 9,000 pounds of e-waste. Some cost was offset by the resale value of gently used computer screens and laptops, but the school had to pay fees to wipe hard drives and to dispose of TVs and CRT monitors.
In general, it pays to understand your local municipality’s e-waste and recycling programs, deHart says. Partnering with other schools can also lower costs.
“When you create an expectation that there will be a certain day when all e-waste needs to be brought over for pickup, then people respond to that,” deHart 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. They’re also unable to get comprehensive data about how much is being diverted from the landfill, since the municipality doesn’t provide that information the way a recycling hauler would.
Donating materials that don’t qualify for recycling but which can be reused is another way to lower costs. Puget Sound sent over 10,000 pounds of donations to Goodwill during student move-out days last May.
In Illinois, Northwestern University’s Office of Sustainability offers the “Take it or Leave it” program every June. Students put nonperishables such as clothing, sheets and small household items in boxes in front of residence halls. Also added are any canned goods from their rooms.
Food is donated to the campus kitchens, while any other household materials are sent to local charities. The program results in about 10,000 pounds of donations every year.
A furniture exchange program that has been in place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1958 is open to faculty, students and staff from MIT, Harvard, Suffolk and Boston universities.
In addition, each year Harvard hosts several “freecycle” events as part of its sustainability initiatives. Materials that aren’t used by other students or staff are donated to community and nonprofit organizations. The university’s Green Labs Program also encourages reuse of lab supplies.
These kinds of programs help institutions reach sustainability goals and generate community support, notes Tom Miller, senior vice president of operations at Ontario-based Progressive Waste Solutions, which has its U.S. headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Sometimes, the most cost-effective thing you can do with unwanted items is to put them in a landfill, but that’s the least conservationist approach,” he says. “Making an effort to identify what you can donate or recycle may save you hauling costs, or it may not, but it’s the right thing to do either way.”
Tweezing out recyclables and donation-worthy items may reduce the volume of waste, but the remaining garbage is still a major budget issue.
“Cost is our biggest challenge when it comes to waste,” says Theroux-Keech of Eastern Connecticut, who notes that she spends time getting bids from multiple local waste management companies, and that helps to reduce some costs.
Waste companies are stepping in to help colleges and universities with ideas for driving more efficiencies, says Byron Chafin, national education manager for Houston-based Waste Management.
At some colleges and universities, officials are breaking waste down into categories to better understand the garbage being produced, he explains. This can improve recycling and initiate long-term reduction programs. Waste Management has started to use scales on its trucks, so client schools can track and report waste weight data.
For example, an institution’s officials may learn that the campus has a disproportionate amount of food waste compared to other schools, or that the amount of non-recyclable waste is increasing significantly over previous months. That type of data can drive awareness campaigns for students and faculty, or provide a basis for major changes like composting or recycled materials purchasing.
Even though Waste Management and other haulers profit from waste, they’re also committed to helping their customers reduce the amount that goes into landfills, according to both Miller and Chafin.
“No one wants more landfills, not even the people that manage waste,” says Miller. “There are many of us in this business who believe in conservation, and see landfills as a necessary evil.”
That means campus officials should feel comfortable talking to their haulers, as well as municipalities, about what can be done to lessen waste amounts and increase efficiencies, Chafin adds.
In addition to working with companies and towns, administrators are working harder on the amount of garbage, diverting items from the waste stream by creating on-campus systems and programs. Some are building compost areas or working with neighboring schools on events such as e-waste recycling days.
Development of no-waste events is also gaining some momentum, especially because they’re being done at large schools like Rutgers and Notre Dame, says Chafin,“To create a no-waste football game, for example, is an enormous undertaking that takes years of coordination before you get to that point,” he says. “But if a school articulates that as a goal, even getting part of the way can be a major achievement.”
These approaches can lower facilities and waste costs, but they also require a passionate and concerted effort by everyone from the president to each incoming first-year student, says VMI’s deHart.
“You need to have either overarching sustainability targets or some kind of large-scale demand for these initiatives,” she says. “Because to make diversion into an effective strategy, everyone has to be involved.”
Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.