The State of Zero Waste, Four Years In

Students, faculty, and alumni joined Environmental Services and Office of Sustainability staff members in the fourth Annual Waste Characterization Study on the morning of Friday, October 11th. Since the inception of the college’s Zero Waste initiative, there has been a lack of regular data, even as waste disposal infrastructure has improved. The annual waste characterization study has been the primary source of data about the contents of the college’s waste stream. Administrators expect that new data about the college’s waste stream will allow them to precisely define the Zero Waste commitment by the end of this academic year.

The Office of Sustainability’s  Zero Waste goal is to divert 80% of Swarthmore’s waste from the Chester incinerator by 2022. The incinerator has been described as contributing to a “slow-motion public health disaster” in the community of Chester. Since its founding in 2014, the Office of Sustainability has been focused on improving waste management.

“One of the early things that we were really interested in getting a handle on was the state of our waste systems,” said Melissa Tier, Sustainability Program Manager. 

The early stages of Zero Waste were student initiatives to begin separating waste streams – compost, recycling, and trash. The college’s composting program grew out of a student-run program. Two of the first Presidential Sustainability Research Fellows, Vanessa Meng ’19 and Adina Spertus-Melhus ’17, created an inventory all of the waste bins around campus, researched waste disposal at other institutions, and organized the first waste characterization study. 

The goal of the annual waste characterization study is to collect data on the college’s waste stream. Compost, recycling, and trash are pulled from various buildings across campus. All of these bags are weighed and emptied onto a large table. Participants then sort the waste in subdivisions of each stream — for example, recycling includes paper, plastic, and metal. Once the waste has been sorted it is weighed again. This provides more granular data about each waste stream as well as contamination, and actually diverted waste versus waste that could have been diverted.

Standardizing the disposal of waste around campus and working with EVS has been crucial to begin diverting waste from the incinerator. 

“We can better control [the college’s waste stream] by doing more through EVS and more through our in-house team instead of using the outside hauler,” said Chip Proctor, EVS Manager of Administration.   

“We’ve gone to the three-bin system [compost, recycling, and trash] that we see now pretty standard across most of the buildings,” said Proctor, explaining how waste disposal has been standardized across campus. Having standardized bins and the support of the EVS techs has been crucial in creating a robust system of waste disposal that minimizes what is sent to trash and makes it possible for EVS to efficiently collect all three waste streams individually.

“It really gives you the opportunity to make those choices about disposal,” said Proctor. 

Administrators responsible for the Zero Waste initiative agree that the college now has the infrastructure necessary to properly separate its waste and can begin to work more on other aspects of the Zero Waste initiative. Specifically, they want to reduce the purchase of items that are made of non-renewable material. 

“[We need] to become more consistent with purchasing materials that can be reused, recycled or ultimately composted so that we can kind of move towards a better system,” said Proctor.

Preventing products that will end up in the trash from arriving on campus in the first place is proving a challenge.

“Departments, student groups, anyone can purchase and bring [non-renewable material] to our campus without much standardization. That makes tracking where things are coming from and then [limiting the potential trash] that comes to campus very challenging,” said Tier.

According to Proctor, the college has struggled with vendors providing products that will end up in the trash that the college has specifically requested not be provided.

This is due in part to the college not having a standardized approach for making purchases across the campus community.

“Centralized purchasing at Swarthmore is a very new concept … There’s a lot of work happening with the Purchasing Office … we’re having conversations about policies to not even bringing certain things to campus,” said Tier. Regardless of improvements made to purchasing administrators still feel that they need to know more about the state of the waste stream to determine if the Zero Waste commitment has been met.

While the college has created efficient systems of disposal, there is still limited data on the overall waste stream.

“It’s next to impossible right now to measure our total waste production … We want regular information about how much we’re creating and then we can track our reduction efforts” said Tier. “The whole idea of the waste characterization study is to sample from a variety of types of buildings … That way we can at least compare how we’re doing across the years.”

Tier expects that the college will soon have access to much more regular and detailed metrics about the overall waste stream. 

“In the contract [with the college’s new recycling processor], we’re going to be able to get actual numbers on our recycling. Up until now, our recycling has been combined with other people’s recycling … Right now, waste is picked up by our haulers at multiple locations on campus. Eventually, we want all of it to pass through one location on campus. EVS techs and Green Advisors will move waste to a centralized location where we would be able to do some weighing ourselves, giving us really precise data.”

With access to more data, the college intends to more precisely define what successfully meeting the Zero Waste commitment by 2022 looks like.

“By the end of this year, we want to say, ‘how are we measuring 80%? Is it gross [of diverted waste]?  How are we comparing the present to where we’ve come from?’” said Tier.

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