WU aims to decrease recycling contamination, become waste-free

Kathleen White | Staff Reporter

The Office of Sustainability is on a path toward zero waste but must currently deal with recycling and composting issues.

In the Office of Sustainability’s strategic plan, it aims to achieve a 55 percent waste diversion rate and reduce the amount of consumer-generated waste by 35 percent on the Danforth Campus by 2020. Recycling and composting are both important components to achieving those goals.

The Office of Sustainability encountered a problem in 2016 when a number of recycling loads were rejected due to high rates of contamination.

“[The composting facility] only accepts 3 percent contaminated compost, so it means that if people threw their plastic knives in with their to-go boxes that would be enough to throw out the whole bag because it’s just a little more than 3 percent,” sophomore and Congress of the South 40 Sustainability Chair Jacob Halladay-Glynn said.

Now, the Office of Sustainability aims to reduce contamination of recycling and composting loads on campus this through a number of different initiatives, including a green office program that encourages offices across the University to implement sustainable practices. The Office of Sustainability also did a re-signage campaign last year to correct misconceptions on what was recyclable last year.

According to Sustainability Manager Cassie Hage, the Office of Sustainability also has members of the Washington University community educate one another through the Recycling Geniuses program, wherein students and employees can get trained with in-depth knowledge about materials and what goes where and why.

Washington University Green Ambassadors (WUGAs) are another tool the Office of Sustainability uses to educate students on how to sort their waste.

“The WUGA program runs that sorting program where there are three people or less in front of those sorting places in [Bear’s Den] where they tell you where to sort [your waste.] That’s for the first two weeks in the hopes that people will learn how to sort it from there,” Halladay-Glynn said.

Halladay-Glynn believes there should be a shift to using more compostable materials, as there’s a limit to what can be recycled.

“I think that’s the great final solution and so having our school be an example, especially in the St. Louis area that doesn’t have as much composting as other areas, is a really great way for us to shine the light on [the] St. Louis region,” Halladay-Glynn said.

Currently there are only post-consumer compost collections in Bear’s Den, the Law School and Hillman Hall, whereas there are pre-consumer compost collections (food trimmings, spoiled food) in all the dining facilities that Bon Appetit operates and in Whittemore House, according to Hage.

There are no reported plans to increase the number of post-consumer compost collections on campus.

“The post-consumer areas that we do have were rolled out as pilots and we haven’t demonstrated such consistent results with successful composting that there’s a good case to be made to roll it out elsewhere. It is expensive to compost, particularly if there’s contamination. Where recycling can withstand a 20 percent contamination threshold—which is pretty high—compost, by comparison, can only take 2 to 3 percent. Because that threshold is so low it’s been very challenging to not get contamination fees, which essentially triples the amount we’re paying for it compared to just landfilling it. And that’s a pretty hard value proposition,” Hage said.

While recycling and composting are both important measures, Hage believes there should also be an emphasis on waste minimization.

“There’s a really big opportunity to encourage people to sit down and eat in place or to use the Eco To-Go program to reduce the waste overall. So although the materials are being composted and recycled most of the time if they’re put in the right places, there’s still an environmental impact for those lifecycle of those materials that are being used one time. So. I think it’s really important that message gets across to students where possible to take advantage of the reusable infrastructure,” Hage said.

Hage believes waste reduction is a pathway to sustainability.

“It’s also a really solvable issue. It’s not something like climate change, which seems so huge, and you need to have the politics aligned and all these big picture things. So, it seems really daunting, whereas something like recycling and waste management is really up to the individual user of making the quick decision at each disposal point. Especially when we talk about our diversion goal to get to 55 percent, it’s super achievable if people put value on it and put a couple of extra moments understanding what goes where and then separating out the materials,” Hage said.