Who’s managing your campus waste?

New ways of transforming waste into campus commodities and renewable energy
By: | January 28, 2015

In the 1990s, Al Gore warned the public about the consequences of global warming. Though Gore may not have been the father of campus recycling nor the Internet, he and other like minded politicians placed the environmental public policy ball in play within the executive and legislative branches of Federal and State governments.

At first, some campuses predictably resisted increased government regulation, bureaucratic compliance costs, and risk management. Yet, most campuses soon devised new strategies for recycling refuse and reusing materials from cafeterias, residence halls, classrooms, and labs. Importantly, campus facilities management staff have now vertically integrated recycling and renewable energy strategies into unified and coherent waste management plans.

Across the nation, colleges and universities have creatively reduced the amount of waste they contribute to landfills and the environment. Penn State’s Trash to Treasure program is a community based effort to sell unwanted goods that students leave behind in residence halls after the semester ends – with proceeds going to the local chapter of the United Way.

The University of New Hampshire reports that the preponderance of their campus energy needs are met without using fossil fuels. Remarkably, UNH takes landfill gas from miles away and uses it to power its campus. This gas is released from existing landfills and sent underground to produce heat and electricity for UNH campus facilities.

In an effort to work together collaboratively, higher ed institutions across North America compete annually in the eight week long RecycleMania Tournament which achieves waste reduction results and promotes sustainability awareness. Through this competitive process, specific benchmarks are tracked to compare schools and ultimately find a winner. Such weekly tracking standards include the weight of recycled goods and the weight of trash created which, when measured, crowned Antioch College as the 2014 Tournament winner.

As an early adopter in the fight against climate change, Cornell University created the Cornell Waste Management Institute in 1987 which continues to educate the public, conduct research on environmental impact, and advise on best practice strategies for effectively and sustainably dealing with waste. Other institutions have taken parallel paths, including North Carolina A&T State University’s Waste Management Institute, The State University of New York at Stony Brook’s Waste Reduction and Management Institute, and Cal Poly’s Global Waste Research Institute.

On a significant number of campuses, the renewable energy process is calibrated through a carefully controlled carbon-neutral process. This process involves carbon based materials – read as food, paper, and waste. These materials are eventually burned and heat is generated into energy. By way of example, the University of Iowa has been a leader in biomass energy generation by burning oats from a nearby cereal manufacturer to help run an on-campus power plant. For its part, Middlebury College in Vermont plans to become carbon neutral by 2016 due to its biomass plant, which is expected to cut the College’s carbon emissions by 40 percent.

Beyond financial savings, renewable energy and recycling can lead to new academic program development. Students and faculty can collaborate on power plant and environmental technologies to research the next wave of innovative responses to climate change. This notion is in harmony with Connecticut College’s stated mission to prepare graduates to advance the principles and practices of sustainability in a variety of roles, from careers in sustainability to active citizenship. In a similar vein, we learned from the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN), a consortium for higher education innovators in sustainability, that its partner institutions are committed to pushing the envelope and taking a leadership role for advancing knowledge, technology, and tools that create a sustainable future.

Metaphorically speaking, what we also learned from these several institutions, research organizations, and consortia is that in today’s campus environment, recycling, reuse, and renewable energy are to waste management what retention and persistence are to enrollment growth. So for the foreseeable future, colleges and universities of any size simply cannot afford not to recycle, reuse, and recapture.

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance