Students, UT administration can make steps to reach zero-waste

Avery McKitrick

As co-director of the oldest and largest environmental student organization on campus, I have the pleasure of interacting with a lot of UT students. There’s one thing that we all have in common: We all produce some kind of waste, and it has to go somewhere. 

That’s where UT comes in. A few years ago, UT undertook an ambitious goal of reducing the amount of waste we send as a university to the landfill, but the problems and solutions aren’t as black and white as they seem. Let’s back up to 2016. 

In 2016, President Fenves unveiled UT’s new goal of going zero waste by 2020, defined in UT’s Sustainability Master Plan as “ninety percent or higher diversion of municipal solid waste from the landfill or incineration.” According to the plan, achieving this goal involves doing things like increasing reuse and recycle infrastructure across campus, converting major campus events to zero waste and expanding food waste avoidance. 

So how close are we exactly to meeting that goal? The short answer is we are not close enough. According to UT Resource Recovery, UT only diverts about 39% of its nonconstruction waste from landfills right now. 

Why is this? I contacted resource recovery manager Bobby Moddrell, to ask his expert opinion. Moddrell said, one of the
University’s biggest challenges to achieving zero waste by 2020 goal is simply the contamination of composting and recycling streams, where waste is thrown into the wrong bin when it’s time to dispose of it. This could be chalked up to lack of bin pairing across campus, where landfill, recycling and sometimes compost bins are placed next to each other. 

These bins lack consistent bin type and signage as well as a general lack of education of UT students, staff and faculty. Moddrell also cites recent lightweighting of plastics-, when companies reduce the amount of overall material to package a product, the difficulty of rolling out composting programs across campus and limited staff to implement new programs. In short, we will likely not reach our goal as originally outlined in the 2016 Sustainability Master Plan. 

On the surface, this might seem like a bad thing. But other universities of our size are facing similar issues, and we’ve made a lot of progress. This goal has brought about important programs like the Green Offices program, which provides a multitiered certification process for UT offices to lessen their environmental impact. Certified Green Offices now cover 1 million of the 15 million square feet of campus. 

UT is also in the process of hiring a full-time Green Labs Coordinator, who will work to divert waste from labs on campus. When 2020 comes around, UT isn’t going to simply quit trying to divert its waste. UT is looking into extending its deadline to 2040, the same year that the city of Austin plans to reach a similar zero-waste goal. 

UT’s lack of progress in reaching its zero waste by 2020 goal may be rooted in a number of logistical and bureaucratic issues, but students can still do their part to divert waste and make UT more sustainable. 

The best thing you can do as a student is to educate yourself and others. UT Resource Recovery hosts several 1.5-hour Zero Waste Hero workshops throughout the year, where you can receive zero waste training from the campus experts. 

Another thing students can do to help UT meet its zero waste by 2020 goal is volunteer. As part of the Zero Waste Hero program, participants will complete 10 “action hours” on UT campus. One great opportunity to complete those action hours, or just to do your part to help UT meet its goal, is to volunteer with Texas Athletics on their Sustainability Sort Squad and help sort through football game waste. Student organization leaders who bring a group to sort with Texas Athletics can earn money for their organization depending on the number of volunteers and the hours worked. 

But if volunteering isn’t your thing, Texas Athletics and UT Resource Recovery hire several students each semester as interns and part-time employees. If you’re involved with a student organization, the Campus Environmental Center’s Green Events project team will make your organization’s event zero waste for free. 

Finally, make your voice heard! There is no one that UT administration hears more than students. Take advantage of your position, and post about UT’s zero waste goal on social media. You can also write to UT  officials to express your support or encourage the hiring of additional faculty to work toward zero waste initiatives. 

As co-director of the oldest and largest environmental student organization on campus, I have met incredible people who only want to do their part in making the world a little greener, even if they aren’t quite sure how. And I, for one, am glad that UT is trying to do its part as well.

McKitrick is an environmental science junior.