Imagine a typical college campus as pictured in a glossy recruitment brochure. Elegant brick buildings dot a tree-lined vista. Students gather on the lawn or around a lamplit library table to discuss math, literature, politics, science and the most urgent concerns of the 21st century.
Behind those picturesque views lies a picture that’s not always so pretty — dumpsters full of uneaten food, electronic waste, old equipment and dorm garbage. Higher education campuses produce many types of waste, from everyday trash and recyclables to chemical and biological waste. These institutions need intelligent, dependable, environmentally conscious management plans to bolster their disposal practices.
Waste on College Campuses
Colleges and universities generate large volumes of waste. They effectively function as small municipalities in many cases, with their own restaurants, stores, medical facilities, residences, gyms and state-of-the-art research labs. And like municipalities, they produce lots of garbage.
Higher education campuses differ widely in their sizes, student body compositions and administrative approaches, so naturally, their waste management approaches vary widely too. Some campuses boast extensive recycling and composting programs, while others are still beginning to implement waste management strategies.
Those management programs are critical for minimizing waste and its impact on the broader community. Fortunately, a little planning and investment can help colleges and universities develop useful waste management processes and lower their waste production.
How to Reduce Waste on College Campuses
College campuses are often eager to reduce waste for many reasons — to save money, streamline operations, appeal to students and donors and do something good for the environment at the same time. To lower their waste output, colleges and universities can take a few essential steps:
1. Perform a Waste Assessment
For a waste assessment, a college or university might form a dedicated team to gather data, analyze current practices and make recommendations for improvements. The assessment team should note characteristics and data points like these:
- Waste composition.
- Waste volume.
- Waste origins.
- Potential options for reusing, recycling and eliminating waste.
The waste evaluation can also look into areas in which the campus could use more recycled materials in its day-to-day operations.
Once the assessment is complete, the educational institution will have more concrete, quantifiable data about its waste practices and better understand how to improve its waste management.
2. Create a Recycling Program
Perhaps the best thing a college or university can do for its waste management success is to create and implement a recycling program. An effective recycling program reduces landfill waste and lowers raw material consumption by providing recycled materials for reuse.
Below are a few ways campuses can make their recycling programs most successful:
- Make the program inclusive: University leaders should educate everyone on campus about the program and get people at all levels involved. They will need to gain support from administrative leaders, solicit student input, publicize the program widely and educate custodial personnel on the ins and outs of the new recycling policies.
- Capitalize on student interest: Though it’s difficult to generalize about an entire population, overall, the current generation of college students is highly invested in sustainable living. About 92% of 18- to 34-year-olds report that they recycle, for instance. If universities get these committed students invested in their recycling programs, they can see excellent program results and longevity.
- Find markets for the recyclables: A recycling program is useful only if reliable facilities are available to accept the waste. A campus may want to work with a professional waste disposal company for assistance in finding takers for its recyclable items.
- Locate recycling bins strategically: University and college campuses should assess what locations produce the largest volumes of recyclable waste. These locations might be cafeterias, libraries, snack and vending areas or classrooms, for example. Placing bins in these areas makes recycling more convenient and likely.
3. Promote and Incentivize Waste Reduction
To set themselves up for success, college and university campuses will need to market new waste management initiatives effectively. They can promote the initiatives by posting flyers in common areas, sending out emails and announcing the programs in the school newspaper and on social media accounts.
Campuses might also provide small rewards for waste reduction achievements. They could reward individual students or staff members who come up with good ideas for reducing waste or recycling more — for instance, by using less paper, sending out less physical mail or promoting office supply exchanges. They could also incentivize group achievements by providing snacks for the department that recycles the most or offering free pizza to the entire campus if waste production drops by a specific amount each month.
4. Develop Targeted End-Of-School-Year Initiatives
The end of the school year is usually the time when campuses generate most of their waste. As stressed students rush to move out after finishing exams, they often throw away unwanted items like furniture, food, clothes and books instead of taking the time to figure out how to donate or recycle them.
Campuses can curb these practices by setting up donation stations. If throwing their belongings into the dumpster is no longer the most convenient option, students will likely be more willing to recycle. Campuses can help by setting up food, clothing and book drives. They may also be able to help students find markets for furniture donation so desks and couches that still have years of use left in them don’t end up in the trash.
Types of Waste on College and University Campuses
To create effective waste management plans, colleges and universities first need to know the types of waste they produce. Below, we’ve compiled a list of various kinds of waste commonly generated on institutional campuses:
1. Food Waste
College and university campuses generate tremendous volumes of food waste. The average college student alone generates approximately 142 pounds of food waste a year. And college and university campuses all together throw out a staggering 22 million pounds of uneaten food every year. This issue is only a small part of a larger food waste problem across the United States, where 40% of all food produced goes into the garbage before it ever reaches a person’s plate.
The reasons for food waste on an educational campus vary. The college or university itself may be overpurchasing food to ensure a sufficient supply and then throwing it away, especially in all-you-can-eat cafeterias where plentiful stores are essential. And in the cafeteria, students may pile food onto their ample trays, find it unappealing once they sit down and dutifully scrape it into the garbage. Rutgers University recently addressed this issue by going trayless in its cafeterias, saving $300,000 and reducing food waste by 20%.
2. Recyclable Paper, Cardboard, Plastic, Glass and Cans
College campuses tend to produce vast quantities of these recyclables. Even in the digital age, many students, professors and staff members still prefer handwritten notes and end up with piles of unwanted paper once their courses and projects are complete. The snacks so essential to late-night studying or socializing tend to come in recyclable plastic, glass or aluminum containers. And shipments of necessary items throughout the year are likely to arrive in recyclable plastic and cardboard packaging.
3. Student Clothes and Housewares
As we’ve mentioned above, many students find it more convenient to throw away their clothes and dorm furnishings at the end of the year than donate or recycle them. This wasteful disposal perpetuates a vicious cycle when students return the next year, buy all new items and then toss those purchases into the trash nine months later as they prepare to leave once again.
Student and facility electronics often form a large portion of a campus’s waste — the average person in the United States generates 42 pounds of electronic waste per year. As campuses continually upgrade their computing facilities and office computers to keep up with the latest technology, the old computers have to go somewhere. So do old printers, phones, copy machines and other electronics that receive upgrades over the years.
Discarded student electronics often become part of a university’s waste stream as well. Students may throw away old phones, TVs, tablets, laptops and printers, along with cords and other accessories. Recycling is a much more eco-friendly option — the metals in old electronics often have a high reuse value.
5. Chemical Waste
Chemical waste on a college or university campus may come from numerous sources. Campus laboratories generate waste chemicals, as do cleaning services. The detergents used in campus laundry rooms eventually become waste as well. Much of these chemical substances are hazardous waste under federal law and must undergo specific disposal processes according to local and federal regulations.
6. Maintenance Waste
In the maintenance department, spent paints, solvents, adhesives and lubricants all form potentially hazardous waste. Because they are difficult to recycle, spent incandescent light bulbs usually become landfill waste. Spent fluorescent light bulbs, which contain small amounts of mercury, typically require special handling because of the environmental and health risks they pose.
7. Biological Waste
Biological waste from laboratories and campus medical centers will require special handling and disposal. Tissue from biology and cadaver labs forms biological waste, as do tissue samples, contaminated bandages and used sharps from medical facilities.
Furniture waste on a college or university campus has a couple different sources. Students themselves may throw away furniture in their haste to move out at the end of the year. The campus itself may also get rid of old furniture as it modernizes its classrooms, cafeterias, computer labs and study spaces.
In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that books accounted for about 850,000 yearly tons of solid waste generation. And colleges and universities often generate tons of textbook waste. As courses upgrade to new editions, they may end up throwing their newly obsolete textbooks into the garbage if donation programs cannot use them. Students, too, may find it more convenient merely to throw away their books at the end of the year rather than donating or reselling them.
10. Art Supplies
If the campus has a fine arts department, it likely produces substantial amounts of waste. Old paints, turpentine, clay, plaster, wires and other art materials become waste once projects are complete or their usefulness expires. Even student artworks, once proudly displayed throughout the semester, may end up in the garbage at the end of the course.
Waste Management at Colleges and Universities
Having an effective waste management plan is essential for any higher learning institution. Below are a few benefits of a robust waste management plan:
- Protecting the environment: Sustainable waste management solutions protect the environment from the harmful effects of disposal. Fewer waste items going to landfills means lowered environmental pollution and a reduced risk of toxic leaks into the soil and groundwater. Fewer waste items going to incinerators means less air pollution and fewer carbon emissions to contribute to climate change.
- Preserving human health: Proper waste management helps keep people healthy by reducing harmful contaminants in the environment. Chemical wastes and heavy metals like mercury and lead can cause adverse health effects if they reach public areas. Effective disposal practices contain these contaminants safely to keep people healthy.
- Minimizing unsightly waste: Many people go about their daily lives without ever laying eyes on the landfill unless they need to take an old couch or mattress there. If landfills continue growing unchecked, though, they could soon become unsightly blights on the landscape. The World Bank reports that by 2070, in the absence of drastic intervention, global waste will likely grow by 70%, increasing by almost a billion tons per year. Decreasing that waste is essential for preserving habitable and aesthetically pleasing spaces to live in.
- Reducing natural resource consumption: Robust waste management practices that promote reuse and recycling help reduce natural resource consumption. Reusing or buying recycled items means less need to produce new ones and a decreased drain on our finite natural resources. Reduced consumption also lowers levels of environmental pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions by shrinking manufacturing demands.
- Maintaining compliance: The last thing a college or university wants is to run afoul of state or federal waste disposal requirements, especially if it already operates within tight budgetary constraints. A comprehensive waste management plan can keep the campus in compliance and help it avoid stiff fines.
- Saving money: At first, changes to waste management protocols often involve financial investment. Over the long term, though, effective waste management can save educational institutions money by reducing disposal costs, minimizing fines and decreasing the purchase of new equipment and supplies.
- Burnishing institutional reputation: Most colleges and universities are proud to be community and global leaders — both intellectually and scientifically and in making the world a little better for future generations. Developing reliable, sustainable waste management practices is an excellent way for campuses to set an example of innovation and leadership in these areas.
Colleges and universities can make their jobs easier by partnering with a reliable company to tackle their waste management challenges. Experienced professionals can offer guidance and assist with the labor of removing and transporting waste.
Work With Environmental Recovery Corporation for Sustainable Campus Waste Disposal
To get help with developing a reliable, environmentally friendly waste management program for your college or university campus, contact ERC.
We are a full-service waste management company specializing in all streams of residual waste, and we are happy to consult with you about meeting your sustainability goals. We offer numerous responsible waste disposal solutions, including dumpster rentals, environmental waste and recycling services, chemical waste management services and sustainable waste transportation services. When you work with us, you’ll gain the peace of mind of knowing your waste management protocols are sustainable and you’re doing your part to keep the Earth clean and safe.
Contact us today to schedule disposal services or learn more.