Most students have heard of UT’s zero waste 2020 goal, which aims for 90% of all waste produced on campus to be diverted — that is composted or sent to recycling instead of being sent to a landfill. We’re over halfway through 2019 now, and UT’s diversion rate is hovering around only 40%. It’s safe to say that UT won’t achieve its goal by 2020, but it’s important for students not to be discouraged by this and instead to celebrate the strides UT has made so far.
As a former student employee at in the Campus Environmental Center, a student organization sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, I got to see a lot of the behind the scenes work that goes into designing an effective campuswide recycling and composting program and how hard it can be to get students, faculty and staff on board. The Office of Sustainability has already pushed huge initiatives to combat waste on campus. For example, paper towel composting, signs above trash bins indicating what items should be composted/recycled/put in landfill, using all reusable plates and utensils in J2 and Kinsolving Dining and Eco2Go. In addition, UT students can get paid positions on campus to help with zero waste efforts, such as running waste audits with Austin Resource Recovery, tracking food waste in the dining halls, helping UT offices get certified as Green Offices and reducing energy costs for the Green Labs program.
But most people on campus don’t know that these initiatives even exist, and people can’t support something they don’t know about, which makes it harder for the Office of Sustainability to spread its programs and educate people about zero waste. Students are often bombarded with so much information when they first arrive on campus about events, student groups and new University initiatives, so it’s easy to tune out information about zero waste when it blends into the white noise. This brings me to one of the biggest obstacles to zero waste on campus: Contamination. If too many noncompostable items go into a bin for compost, it makes the compost unusable, so all of that compost is sent to a landfill instead. The same happens with recycling. The vast majority of waste on campus is compostable or recyclable, but a lot of it ends up going to a landfill instead — either because people don’t know things are recyclable or compostable or because of contamination. Compost bins even had to be removed from the University Unions because the contamination rate was so high.
When I tabled last year to promote America Recycles Day, I helped run a game where students had to guess which items were recyclable in under 20 seconds. Most had a hard time and got things wrong because zero waste is often a new thing students learn about when they arrive on campus. The reason I know so much about zero waste now is because I had to learn about it in order to do my job last year and teach students about it, and I’m still learning new things. Given all the challenges of zero waste awareness and contamination, a 90% diversion rate is incredibly ambitious, and getting to a 40% diversion rate has been an achievement.
As a newly appointed sustainability policy director in Student Government, my co-director and I are making zero waste a priority this year. We’re working on educating freshmen and transfer students on the basics of zero waste in their first-year classes, and in the meantime, we’re collaborating with University Unions to make their containers and utensils compostable in order to reduce contamination and bring compost back to the Unions successfully. A paid sustainability intern will help with this major project.
Instead of lamenting that UT won’t reach its 2020 goal, we should celebrate how far it’s come, thanks to not only the administration, but the work of hundreds of students both in the Office of the Sustainability and in student organizations. There is more work to do, but UT’s zero waste momentum is growing, and its progress won’t stop in January.
Garnett is the sustainability policy director of the Student Government and a Plan II junior.