California State University, Long Beach
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Getting To “Zero Waste”

Published: April 18, 2016

Who’d ever think that paper towels could make such a difference?

“We have 326 restrooms on campus and every day each of those produces a couple of bags of used paper towels that could be composted, most of which currently are just going to landfill,” said Holli Fajack, Sustainability Coordinator in Physical Planning and Facilities Management (PPFM). “That’s a lot of paper towels.”

That’s just one area being addressed as CSULB looks to move toward becoming a zero waste institution, technically meaning that 90 percent or more of all trash created on campus will not end up in a landfill or incinerator.

The CSU Sustainability Policy adopted in 2014 directs campuses, including all auxiliaries, to reduce their solid waste disposal rate to 50 percent this year and 80 percent by 2020, with an eye on moving toward zero waste shortly thereafter. Last year, CSULB’s Sustainability Task Force formed a Zero Waste Working Group to develop a formal plan for the campus to not only meet the 2020 CSU goal, but exceed it. The university has already surpassed the 50 percent diversion goal but, Fajack warns, every percentage point will get harder and harder to achieve the closer we get to 90 percent.

“It’s kind of like when you are trying to lose weight,” said Fajack. “Those last few pounds are the most difficult.”

Still, it’s an achievable goal even though there’s always going to be a certain amount of material that won’t or can’t get reused or recaptured. During the fall and spring semesters, Fajack has conducted several waste audits with the help of Associated Students Inc. Recycling staff and students from the new service learning course, ESP 392: Climate Action and Sustainability at CSULB. After sorting through several hundred pounds of garbage collected from various locations across campus, they have concluded that the vast majority of the waste generated on campus could potentially be recycled or composted.

But expanding recycling and composting programs across campus is just one part of the solution. In an effort to reach the zero waste goal, CSULB will be taking what is referred to as a “three door” approach—the front door, meaning what is allowed onto the campus; the in door, which is how things are used once on campus; and the back door, which is what becomes of an item once used.

“When you ask people what they think ‘zero waste’ means, most say ‘recycling,’” says Fajack, “but that’s really only looking at one aspect. We’re hoping to raise awareness that what we bring to campus and how efficiently we use what we have are just as important, if not more so.”

That’s why the zero waste plan will include recommendations related to campus purchasing policies and practices as well as green office strategies like setting printers to print double sided.

“Even things like using reusable plates and utensils instead of disposable ones for those office birthday parties can make a difference,” says Fajack. “It may seem small, but every bit adds up.”

There is actually a wide array of well-established waste reduction and recycling programs already operating on campus to divert everything from paper and beverage containers to scrap metal and tree trimmings, just to name a few. But the materials collected and the types of recycling bins vary depending on the campus location and who manages that space. “Facilities Management, ASI and 49er Shops have their own programs that are interconnected in some ways and in others they are operating in their own silos,” said Fajack. “There are a lot of ways that we could streamline our operations through collaboration and that is what we are trying to do.”

Students participating in a waste audit at the ASI Recycling Center last fall.
Students participating in a waste audit at the ASI Recycling Center last fall.

After consultation with zero waste experts, CSULB is looking to roll out a three-stream system for the collection of mixed recycling, much like individuals have at home, along with compost and trash.

“That way,” said Fajack, “you can throw all your recyclable paper, plastics, cardboard and aluminum into one bin, and all of your compostable materials such as food, food-soiled paper and paper towels in another.”

That right there would be a huge increase in the amount of trash being diverted from the campus’ landfill stream, according to Fajack, who noted that if everybody uses the bins correctly, then there would be only a limited number of things on campus that would be considered trash.

Ultimately, the program’s success will depend on educating the campus community in a clear and ongoing basis.

“One of the biggest components is how we communicate and educate about the new system so that everybody—faculty, staff, students and visitors—is aware of what’s going on and how to property participate in the program,” said Fajack. “The goal is to train everyone on campus so that when they see the bins they have seen hundreds of times before to now see them in a different way. And not to just learn how to physically use them but to understand why it’s important for us to move towards zero waste.”

The zero waste program is tied to CSULB’s commitment to reducing the university’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030, as outlined in the campus’ Climate Action Plan. According to the recently completed emissions inventory, approximately 6 percent of campus greenhouse gases come from landfill emissions and, therefore, the university community needs to take responsibility.

“I think people have a desire to recycle and when given the opportunity they tend to do it,” said Fajack. “For us, it’s just a matter of making sure they know how. Quite often when people walk up to a bin they aren’t quite sure what they can put into it. We want to take the guessing out of it. And, because so many people are not used to composting, that’s going to be a really big challenge.”

Along with Fajack, the Zero Waste Working Group is made up of ASI Recycling Center coordinator Lee Johnson, ASI recycling specialist Eric Bryan, 49er Shops’ general manager/CEO Don Penrod, 49er Shops’ facilities manager Clint Campbell, PPFM capital and physical planning manager Michael Gardener, PPFM landscaping and grounds manager and assistant manager Brian McKinnon and Josh Cichuniec, and ASI sustainability assistants Kathy Eung and Nathan Sayad.

Learn more about sustainability efforts at CSULB or celebrate Earth Day by attending sustainability events throughout the month of April.