Nobody talks trash more on campus than Heather Hyde and her team in Western’s Office of Sustainability.
With hundreds of projects on the go, they’re working to raise awareness around waste management and improve recycling and organic collection rates.
“At the end of the day, we have to collectively change our habits in order to have a successful waste program,” said Hyde, director of sustainability. “We all have a role to play in making Western a more sustainable campus.”
Part of Western’s sustainability strategy is to increase awareness about eco-friendly waste management. Here are five things to know about waste at Western and how the campus community can responsibly take out the trash.
1. Going organic. Items most commonly placed in the wrong bin are the paper-based takeout containers from Western’s eateries and residences. Members of the sustainability team have observed a high volume of these containers dropped in bins other than the green, organics bins, where they belong.
“People often assume fruit and vegetable waste are the only items meant for the green bins, and that containers are meant for recycling, but that’s not the case,” said Hyde. “We want to see containers that are organic and paper-based finding their way to our green bins more often.”
The sustainability office has partnered with several groups on campus to place green bins in all campus eateries and residence dining halls with the goal of having at least one in every building.
“The more green bins we can have across campus, the stronger our organics program will be.”
2. Divert and conquer. Hyde said more needs to be done to divert as much waste as possible and reduce the volume ending up in landfill. One of the ways Western is doing this is through an annual waste audit conducted by the Office of Sustainability.
The process includes pulling random bags of trash from select buildings and sorting and weighing the contents. The waste is from a cross-section of campus buildings. For example, the team pulls bags from buildings that have eateries, labs, classrooms or mixed-use space. The audit determines waste composition and helps the team identify potential program improvements for reducing, reusing and recycling waste.
Throughout the pandemic, the sustainability office’s ability to physically sort waste for audits was limited.
“We’ve had to rely heavily on electronic records from our waste management vendors to help determine our diversion rates and areas for improvement,” said Mary-Lee Townsend, sustainability and compliance manager at Western.
“We are looking forward to doing a physical waste audit in 2022.”
Currently, Western recycles an annual average of 3.8 million lbs., including blue bin materials, organics and specialty items.
“We utilize a two-stream recycling system – paper and containers – and we know from our records and from what our waste management partners are telling us, that many of our items are not being sorted properly,” said Townsend. “Moving forward, we will look to improve infrastructure and engagement, and help the campus community sort it right.”
3. Sort it out. Contents from recycling bins go to landfill if they aren’t sorted properly. Western follows London’s recycling program, which unlike many municipalities, has two-recycling streams: paper and containers. Traditional recycling products, such as paper, cardboard, glass, plastic and metal, are divided into two separate streams. Townsend said this is the greatest hurdle of the recycling program and consequently, Western’s diversion rates.
“Many municipalities provide single stream recycling programs, in which all material is collected in one bin. In London, we have a two-stream recycling facility,” said Townsend.
Townsend said both programs have merit. Single stream recycling captures a higher volume of material; however, it is harder to sort them at the recycling facility and can lead to lower-grade recyclables. On the other hand, a functional two-stream recycling system focuses on sorting prior to reaching the recycling facility and – as a result – produces higher-grade recyclables. “The higher the quality, the more likely the material will be sold and reused,” Townsend added.
“This two-stream system has the potential to be better than single-stream but means many of our students are being asked to separate their recyclables when they may never have had to before,” she added.
Sorting recyclables is more crucial than most realize. Townsend explained when 30 per cent or more of the items in the paper and container blue bins are mixed, the collection is considered contaminated. The entire load is then deemed unsuitable for recycling, and all of those items are sent directly to the landfill.
4. Aim to reuse. Recycling is not the only option. Though significantly better than landfill, recycling is one of the least effective options for waste management. It is the last in the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ paradigm for a reason, Hyde said.
Recycling a plastic bottle, for example, requires energy and water resources to remove labels, clean out residue, and melt down the material into pellets. This arduous process along with the transportation and fluctuating market value of the resulting commodity have a direct impact on the viability of recycling collection.
“‘Reduce, reuse, and recycle’ has been a mantra for a long time,” said Hyde. “We know there is great value in reducing and reusing select products and continue to explore and highlight those avenues.”
One of those avenues includes working with a scrap service provider to help move and sell items that could have a second life somewhere else. Recently, 110 pieces of furniture, including couches and office chairs, were recovered and reused. Electronics, such as desktop towers and laptops, have also been passed along.
Hyde said members of the campus community can help to reduce non-traditional and large-scale recycling by using the waste and recycling portal to request pick up of other waste and recyclable items, such as furniture, used batteries and electronics, and hazardous waste.
Last year, more than 200 requests were received through the online portal, helping to recover nearly 70,000 lbs. of material. Not all of the items were repurposed, but Hyde noted that much of it would have otherwise ended up in landfill.
“We encourage the campus community to report reusable assets prior to disposal,” said Hyde. “We can get many of them into other’s hands and ultimately reduce the need for new items.”
5. Wage war on waste. There are seemingly endless opportunities for students, staff and faculty to get involved and be a part of the change.
Hyde said she is seeing a lot of passionate students on campus contributing to the “war on waste.” Her team has partnered with residence sustainability teams, EnviroWestern, Society of Graduate Students, Western Sustainability Leadership Program, and many more student affiliates. Trash Talkers, a student-led campaign, has been particularly active lately, challenging people to recycle properly through social media and in-person campaigns.
Employees are getting involved by joining the Green Office program and signing up for the annual campus clean-up days run by Hyde’s team that usually takes place in September.
“We encourage those who are eager to join a program or start a program to connect with us,” said Hyde. “There is always room for more sustainability advocates.”
Waste management is both the simplest and most complex program, said Hyde. The concept of waste and recyclables ending up in the right spot if they are placed in the correct bin is quite basic. Where it gets difficult is when factors like habits, changing waste and packaging, and new procedures conflict with one another, she added.
“We want to address some of the lesser-known facts about our waste program here at Western with the hope that we will continue to see improved awareness and engagement moving forward.”