Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022
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Checking in on the University’s original waste diversion, sustainability promise 10 years later

Checking+in+on+the+University%E2%80%99s+original+waste+diversion%2C+sustainability+promise+10+years+later
Carla Garcia Leija

In Littlefield Fountain, at least 50 champagne corks float in the water as the aftermath of students’ graduation photoshoots. A forgotten receipt from the William C. Powers Activity Center Chick-fil-A location whistles in a slight breeze as it lies in the grass outside the building. Water bubbles in East Campus’ Waller Creek as it’s forced to trickle around the plastic casing of a 24-pack of Sparkle Purified Water wrapped around the East 23rd Street Bridge.

The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating report, a system tracking the sustainability of university campuses, scored UT-Austin at 69.72% — the highest of the four UT System schools rated, which included UT-San Antonio, UT-Rio Grande Valley and UT-Arlington. However, UT-Austin received the second-lowest score for its waste diversion and mitigation strategies. 

In 2012, the University announced a zero waste goal to achieve a 90% diversion of waste by 2020, which includes redirecting waste from landfills through composting and recycling. However, while waste production on campus has stayed relatively stagnant over the past five years, with the exception of lower amounts during COVID-19 lockdowns, the diversion rate has dropped. 


For the 2022-23 fiscal year, which ran from September 2022 to August 2023, the campus diversion rate was 31% — a third of the original goal declared over a decade ago. 

Corks floating in Littlefield Fountain on March 31, 2024. (Manoo Sirivelu)

THE BREAKDOWN 

The University breaks down their waste disposal system for the almost 240 buildings across the 350-acre main campus into two categories: auxiliary waste, which comes from non-academic spaces like Texas Athletics and University Housing and Dining, and self-haul waste originating from academic areas like classrooms and office buildings.

Custodial services collect the waste before it’s transported to a sorting center. From the campus waste enclosures, Solid Waste and Recycling hauls it to the landfill, recycle center or compost facility. Exterior waste, including litter, is handled by Facility Services, said Lindsey Hutchison, senior Zero Waste coordinator for Resource Recovery.

However, these items are not just sorted based on composition but also on the city, state and national operating procedures required to process the materials, Hutchison said.

“There could be standard operating procedures (about) how particular material gets handled, or you might be making an individual decision about what bin you’re going to use,” Hutchison said. 

Environmental Health and Safety, the University’s environmental protection and campus project safety department, operates under similar procedures for demolition waste management, like with demolition of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. To prevent environmental contamination, the department works with construction companies and project managers to ensure waste is properly disposed of and handled according to regulations, said Nena Anderson, associate director of managing environmental programs. 

“We have to make sure that the University is in compliance — that’s important to our department, to our programs, to us as individuals, because then we know we’re managing the waste the way that it needs to be,” Anderson said. “We really pay close attention to that.”

Between the William C. Powers Student Activity Center and Robert L. Patton building, a buildup of chip bags and a Shake Smart cup is littered on the ground on March 28, 2024. (Charlie Partheymuller)

WHAT’S CAUSED THE DIVERSION RATE DECREASE?

On March 13, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported on campus, prompting then-president Gregory L. Fenves to cancel classes for the rest of the semester and to close the University. 

Waste generation slowed for the 2020-21 fiscal year, reflecting the lower on-campus population. Once the over 50,000 students returned the following year, the numbers increased again. 

Over the past five years, the campus diversion rate has decreased overall by 12%, with a slight increase between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 fiscal years. While this seemingly represents a decrease in campus efficiency in waste management, Hutchison said there are many overlooked nuances about the dynamic between campus and waste generation. 

“The University continues to grow, operations continue to change,” Hutchison said. “It’s a dynamic place where things continue to shift.”

Vendors, yearly population changes and physical expansion strongly impact the University’s waste management and the diversion rate, Hutchison said. If vendors can’t offer an item at previously requested volumes, such as compostable dishes for the dining halls, the University is forced to find other, less-sustainable alternatives. However, these alternatives are usually temporary solutions to facility issues, a University Housing and Dining spokesperson said. 

“It’s a constant evaluation of where the opportunities are and what there’s capacity to be able to implement,” Hutchison said. “(It’s) just continuing to do those audits, look at those numbers (and) work with campus partners on where there’s potential.”

Resource Recovery works with campus partners to determine where there might be gaps in knowledge or information concerning waste management, Hutchison said. 

After the University announced the initial diversion rate goal, Resource Recovery introduced the Zero Waste Workplace Initiative in 2018 to determine ways to increase diversion. The same year, the University began composting paper towels, which comprises roughly 10% of the campus waste stream. Facility Services also implemented Grounds for Grounds in fall 2022, which sends coffee grounds from on-campus coffee shops to composters rather than landfills.

“We offer a lot of resources and try to continue to constantly improve those and address where we see gaps,” Hutchison said. “(But) people realize that it’s hard to participate in the system when you don’t know how best to do that.”

Hutchison said there is no new waste diversion goal timeline set in place after the University missed the initial 2020 deadline. New diversion techniques are in development and will eventually be introduced, she said, though the University is unable to release any information at this time. 

THE RELIABILITY AND ACCESSIBILITY

Three four-foot by three-foot piles full of half-decomposed potato skins, apple cores and orange peels sit next to the Wright-Whitaker Sports Complex on Guadalupe Street. Every Sunday, civil engineering freshman Linus Flores-Araujo wakes up early to aerate the compost piles at the Microfarm, the University’s organic, urban-run farm. 

Flores-Araujo, a composting trainee under the two composting leads at the farm, accepts the few pounds the farm gets a week in compostable materials as it progresses the farm’s sustainability — but while the farm is growing, Flores-Araujo said the University is regressing in its sustainability and waste management, including on its education of these topics. 

“These four years are some of the most important, where students learn the most, or where these people who will have (this) career learn the most,” Flores-Araujo said. “To get them to learn about this really important part of recycling or nutrients … it’s definitely worth trying. Education is the number one thing.”

Currently, composting is an accessible waste disposal option at 105 of the 239 buildings on campus, according to the University. However, Flores-Araujo said the lack of composting in the dining halls is a missed opportunity to divert food scraps from landfills, which could be remedied by increasing campus-wide communication and interaction. 

A University spokesperson said the dining halls are currently working on a composting contract, though one is not yet confirmed.

Dawson Marold, the account services manager for student organization Longhorns Don’t Litter, agreed strengthening understanding of the University’s waste management operations will increase campus sustainability overall. Besides students’ awareness of waste disposal, Marold said education about the eco-friendliness of purchased items is a pivotal point in increasing student interest in preserving the environment. 

“Part of it is definitely that communication and outreach,” said Marold, a sustainability studies and government sophomore. “But another big aspect of it is buy-in as well from the community.” 

Marold said while current waste management operations could be improved through increased composting and recycling opportunities, the University’s current waste management infrastructure is solid and beneficial to increasing the diversion rate in the future. 

“A lot of people, or other institutions, will do sustainable things, but not necessarily for sustainable reasons, but for mainly more economic reasons,” Marold said. “Any type of conversation or dialogue that pits us or students against the University is probably counterproductive and doesn’t actually get anything done.” 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a source’s name, the location of the photo of the chip buildup, the key of the infographic, and to clarify that Solid Waste and Recycling moves items from campus waste enclosures into landfill, recycling center, and composting facilities. The Texan regrets these errors.

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About the Contributor
Vivien Ayers, Senior News Reporter
Vivien is a journalism and sustainability studies sophomore from Denton, Texas, who is an associate news editor for the Spring 2024 semester. She was previously a news desk editor for Fall 2023 and a senior news reporter covering campus breaking news, the city metro and politics in Spring 2023.