Following a small but successful, student-led, green-bin project, the movement may be moving mainstream as Western makes plans for a campus-wide organic waste diversion initiative.
The pilot study to gauge the effect of introducing organics bins just outside the North Campus Building eatery found that students redirected a little more than six kilograms, or four per cent of their total discards, during a two-week period.
That may not sound like a lot at first glance, but “if you multiply that across campus and over a longer timeframe, it makes a big dent in the waste stream,” said biology professor Paul Mensink, graduate chair of the collaborative specialization in environment and sustainability.
He supervised four graduate students in 2019 (before the pandemic began), who each day conducted a waste audit by examining contents of the recycling, garbage and new organics bins placed in the seating area of the building’s Riverside Café.
Concerns that the third bin might introduce either confusion or a smelly mess were unfounded:
Not only did the student researchers find the organics bins were effectively utilized, they also discovered far less food contamination in the recycling bins and fewer mis-sorted items, such as paper napkins, in the garbage bins.
“We were mainly trying to find simple tweaks that would make a big difference,” Mensink said.
“The fine work of these students gave us a lot of information into how this could be rolled out elsewhere.”
More green, less waste
Western already has bins designated for food and other organic products, such as paper food packaging and napkins, in residence dining halls and in major dining hubs, such as UCC CentreSpot, as part of a growing sustainability push at campus eateries.
But smaller, cafeteria-type areas in individual buildings so far have had only blue-bin recycling and bins for landfill.
Heather Hyde, director of sustainability at Western, said the plan now is to continue to grow the organics diversion effort while shrinking the university’s environmental footprint.
“Over the past year, new waste signage has been developed to make it easier to sort waste on campus. This signage has been installed within the residences and this rollout will continue across campus,” Hyde said.
Educational campaigns about proper waste sorting have also been rolling out in collaboration with EnviroWestern this month, she added. Some of these initiatives include, the “Know Before You Throw” campaign, a waste-sorting challenge on Concrete Beach, and a waste diversion ambassadors program, a volunteer opportunity for students to educate their peers about proper sorting in residence dining halls.
For the pilot project, Mensink’s students worked with facilities management staff and conducted their study in 2019, just before the pandemic hit.
They found that three organics bins in the area were likely too many. “We just need one well-signed area near eateries and seating areas for organics to be diverted, and collected just once a week,” Mensink said.
Organics in the waste stream can have a big environmental impact: they reduce the functional lifespan of landfill sites, while generating methane gas as they decompose.
Western directs approximately 300 metric tonnes of food waste and other organics to a waste-to-energy facility each year.
In its recently approved strategic plan, Western has made sustainability one of the university’s major imperatives: with investing, purchasing, building, energy consumption all working towards a commitment to significantly reduce Western’s carbon footprint; and to research, teaching and practices that make a community impact.
Earlier this year, Western’s commitment to sustainable development placed it among the top five per cent of educational institutions in the global Times Higher Education rankings.
“Through student-led projects such as this one, we can really see a drive towards improving sustainability across campus,” Hyde said. “We are committed to improving our organics program campus-wide, and we look forward to future collaborations with students on creating real, meaningful changes to increase our waste diversion.”
The pilot study’s researchers – Ian Arturo, Madelaine Anderson, James Gale and Meredith Fyfe – brought interdisciplinary angles to their work as students in engineering, biology and earth sciences.