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How universitywide sustainability initiatives plan to manage waste levels

(Daily Bruin file photo)

By Martin Sevcik

June 8, 2024 9:37 p.m.

Thousands of tons of waste pass through UCLA each year. Now, UCLA works with the campus community to make that process more sustainable.

Because of their size and purchasing power, institutions such as universities play an important role in promoting waste practices for environmental well-being, experts believe. Accordingly, the University of California has set sustainable waste management goals for its campuses, and UCLA has attempted to pursue these goals by employing a variety of educational and policy tactics – all of which have produced mixed results.

Many of UCLA’s sustainable waste management commitments can be found in the UCLA Sustainability Plan, most recently updated June 13, 2022. This plan focuses on minimizing landfill waste, and tracks UCLA’s progress by utilizing waste diversion rates and per-capita waste metrics.

“The main steps are reducing, which is the hardest one, and then ensuring that we have recycling and composting basically the triple stream everywhere,” said Jade Goegebuer, UCLA’s Zero Waste Manager.

Besides implementing separate disposal methods for trash, recycling and composting – the three waste streams – across campus, Goegebuer added that community-wide approaches to eliminating single-use plastics also plays an important role.

Goegebuer said the waste diversion rate, which identifies the amount of waste that does not enter the landfill after leaving UCLA’s campus, is one metric to measure progress. Waste that has been processed in renewable ways, such as through recycling, composting, reusing and donating are considered diverted waste, she added.

These processes prevent the accumulation of waste in landfill sites, said Shakira Hobbs, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine and the executive director of sustainability nonprofit BioGals. Waste diversion prevents byproducts of landfill accumulation, such as greenhouse gas emissions or toxic chemicals, from affecting humans and the environment, Hobbs added.

Currently, the UC Office of the President has set a 90% diversion rate goal for all UC campuses. But according to the most recent UC Sustainability Annual report, UCLA reached a 54% municipal waste diversion rate without construction materials in 2023, an increase of 9% from 2016. This statistic outcompetes other UC campuses, such as UC Santa Cruz’s 47% rate, but falls below some, such as UC Irvine’s 73% diversion rate.

To improve this diversion rate, UCLA works with Athens Services, a Los Angeles waste pickup company. According to Athens Services, the company sorts out salvageable goods from the recyclable waste stream using human sorting, scanners and other systems. But Goegebuer said there is only so much these sorting mechanisms can do.

“There’s still stuff UCLA has to do,” Goegebuer said. “But even if we were doing as amazing at sorting as we possibly could, there’s still some stuff that are packaged in a way that have to go in the landfill, even if we sort appropriately.”

Still, Hobbs said UCLA can change producers’ sustainability choices.

“Buyers have power to influence producers,” Hobbs said. “If consumers put demand on producers to create products that meet landfill waste diversion, that will help municipalities as a whole meet that goal.”

UCLA’s Sustainability Plan identifies this dynamic, with one commitment requiring UCLA to promote sustainable supply chains through its budget. Goegebuer highlighted initiatives such as UCLA’s Single-Use Plastics Policy, which limits the plastic goods food vendors and event caterers can bring onto campus, as an example of UCLA leveraging its purchasing power to change producer behavior.

Krystal Raynes, a policy associate at advocacy group Californians Against Waste, also works to change producer behavior through legislation. For example, CAW is currently advocating for AB 2236 and SB 1053 in the California legislature. Both bills would require all plastic and paper bags offered in stores to be made solely with recyclable materials, unlike the current ones offered in stores.

“The United States, as well as the entire world, has been slowly moving forward in a single-use, convenience-style way of living,” Raynes said. “If we can just use a single-use container and then throw it away, we don’t think about what goes into our landfills right? Out of sight, out of mind.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, when Americans adopted many single-use goods such as face masks as part of the public health response, may have exacerbated this non-sustainable culture, Goegebuer said.

“For a lot of places, it (COVID-19) increased the landfill waste because you can’t easily recycle a lot of these contaminated things,” Goegebuer said. “It kind of removed the sustainability mindset that some people were finally starting to get into.”

However, UCLA’s campus defied this trend as limited student presence during the pandemic resulted in a dip in per-capita landfill waste. Fortunately, as students have returned to campus in full force, UCLA’s per-capita waste – at 0.89 pounds in 2023 – remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels of 1.29 pounds per person per day in 2019. The current level is now below the UC’s goal of 1.25 pounds per person per day by 2025.

The next goal is 0.7 pounds per person per day by 2030, according to the UC Sustainability Annual Report for 2023. Hobbs said education and outreach are essential to further reduce wastefulness at all institutions.

To this end, Hobbs and Raynes both encourage individuals to think about their product purchases in the context of a circular economy, where goods can be recycled or repurposed after initial uses, rather than being single-use and disposable, Raynes said. Making small changes, such as purchasing recyclable plastic bottles over non-recyclable aluminum cans, can help reduce an individual’s contribution to a landfill, she added.

Even when purchasing landfill-bound goods, Raynes said students can still make an effort to reduce their impact in small ways.

“Rather than buying five packages of almonds, you can buy one big sack,” Raynes said. “Although it’s (plastic) film, you’re reducing your amount of film that’s being put into the landfill.”

Students should also ensure that they properly sort their waste, Goegebuer said. This is important to ensure not only the sustainable disposal of that piece of waste, but the other waste within the disposal unit.

While UCLA works to improve its waste management procedures, it has encouraged students and faculty to do the same, Goegebuer said. UCLA’s dining halls conduct audits to monitor and raise awareness of food waste, and UCLA has adopted a three-stream waste bin design, allowing students to recycle or compost goods anywhere that landfill goods might also go.

For Goegebuer, sustainable waste management is not just a hobby for environmentalists.

“Holding each other accountable is really important, and we’re not going to be successful – not just as a campus, but as a community, as a state, as a country, as a world – if we don’t start implementing those (sustainable practices) within everything,” Goegebuer said.

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