Becoming zero waste requires campuswide involvement

Neil Kaufman

When you think of zero waste, do metal straws and bamboo sporks come to mind? Zero waste is indeed that, but still so much more. The City of Austin set a goal in 2011 to achieve the status of zero waste, with UT aiming to reach that goal by 2020. That means diverting 90% of waste away from the landfill. 

2020 is fast approaching, and our campus’ diversion rate has plateaued around 40%. Don’t feel too cynical, though. For one, no other university in the country is close to a zero waste status. Secondly, this goal was very effective in bringing zero waste into the conversations and operations of every unit on campus. 

Landfills aren’t arbitrarily bad things. They have their purpose — to safely consolidate a community’s waste. However, landfills are problematic for our climate as they emit methane gas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are the “third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States.” Methane gas is 28-36 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, there are many opportunities to divert this waste into other outlets that reduces the demand upstream. 

As the sustainability coordinator for University Housing and Dining, I am responsible for mitigating the waste sent to landfills from our dining and residence halls. As you can imagine, there is quite a lot. In 2018, UHD sent 1,048 tons of waste to the landfill. Also in 2018, 31 tons of edible food went wasted at J2 and Kins Dining halls. 

Zero waste, as it is defined, offers a very narrow view of sustainable waste management. And although it is far better than nothing, it formulates a kind of sustainability grade based on sorting a complex system into two categories, landfill and not landfill, and assigns equal value to all waste not sent to the landfill. The EPA is working to challenge this binary way of thinking with the food waste hierarchy, which sets tiered priorities on how food waste should be diverted.

UHD has adopted this framework in how we divert waste from the landfill. The top of the food waste hierarchy, and the most environmentally beneficial method to divert waste, is called source reduction. UHD practices source reduction by utilizing a food forecasting software to more accurately purchase, prepare and serve food and reduce waste. We also launched the Al, the Albino Squirrel program to encourage patrons at our two campus buffets to avoid over-serving their plates with food and plate responsibly. 

Just under source reduction, feeding the hungry is the next best thing to do to divert food from the landfill. UHD has been donating food to the local nonprofit, Angel House of the Soup Kitchen Ministry at the Austin Baptist chapel, since the mideighties. 

The next tier is feeding animals. UHD is negotiating with a local business to dispose of some of our food waste in this manner. Their process consists of feeding food scraps to grubs (Black Soldier Fly larvae), then feeding these grubs to chickens for egg production. Currently, UT’s AT&T Hotel and Conference Center is utilizing this service with much success. 

Energy capture is the fourth tier in the food waste hierarchy. Food waste has the potential to contribute to the energy grid. Some ways to unlock this energy include methane capture, incineration and waste oil recycling. Waste oil recycling is how UHD disposes of its used cooking oil by recycling it into biodiesel. In 2018, UHD sent 72,354 pounds of waste oil to be recycled into a biodiesel. That’s the equivalent in carbon dioxide savings to planting 10,000 trees. 

The least impactful way to divert waste from the landfill is composting. That isn’t to say composting is bad. It’s often the only way for households and businesses to divert their food waste. UHD sent 157 tons of food waste to be composted in 2018. That’s a lot of compost, but it could be more. 

The biggest factor preventing us from increasing our composting diversion is contamination. Contamination is when noncompostable trash is placed in the compost bins. The composters can’t process that and, if the contamination is bad enough, they will reject the delivery, send it all to the landfill and charge us hundreds of dollars in fees. 

I don’t want to dissuade you from using your metal straw. It’s just that for us to maximize our zero waste potential, we need to go beyond metal straws and really think about the waste we are all generating. You know what’s better than recycling or composting? Not having to recycle or compost that thing you didn’t really need. 

Kaufman is the sustainability coordinator for University Housing and Dining.