Report on Waste Finds Progress and Areas for Improvement

The college’s Zero Waste working group will share a report detailing the college’s work towards becoming a Zero Waste campus in the near future. The report found that the college has made improvements in the diversion of waste from incineration, but that there is still room for improvement. The report, an initial draft of which was shared with The Phoenix, compares the results of last semester’s waste characterization study with data from the previous three waste characterization studies. Members of the Zero Waste group are hopeful that the report will inform the drafting of an update to the college’s 2017 Zero Waste Plan.

The report found that progress has been made in diverting more waste from incineration. From 2016 to 2019, the waste diversion rate increased from 32 percent to 41 percent. The waste diversion rate is the percentage of waste from the college that does not end up being sent to the Chester Incinerator, where the college sends all of its trash. The diversion rate does not include construction waste, electronics, and yard debris; the report estimates that the inclusion of these categories would increase the diversion rate to 65 percent. If all waste had been placed into the correct type of bin, the diversion rate for 2019 would have been 78 percent opposed to the actual 41 percent.

The report was prepared by Alex Danovitch of Nothing Left to Waste, a consulting firm that specializes in helping clients reduce their waste. Danovitch has a history of working with nonprofits and government agencies. He has focused on connecting the operational aspects of recycling and composting to developing Zero Waste policies.

Danovitch felt that the waste characterization studies were an important tool in helping the college achieve its Zero Waste Initiative. 

“It’s a huge commitment from an institution to have an annual waste characterization study. It’s awesome, and it’s great data. Data’s never perfect, but it’s enough, and it’s consistent enough over the four years that it’s comparable,” said Danovitch. 

Analysis of the data from 2019 also revealed areas for improvement. The report found 64 percent of what was put into the trash could have been diverted from incineration, 34 percent of trash was compostable, and 30 percent was recyclable. The report also found that only 56 percent of all compostable material is in fact composted, and only 47 percent of recyclable material was recycled. Further analysis revealed that this is due to improper placement of some of the most basic recyclable materials. 

Danovitch pointed out that while there is room for improvement, some major improvements are not immediately obvious from the data.

“Contamination is a huge issue for recycling right now … If there’s too much food waste or too many non-recyclable items in the recycling, it’s hard for anything to get recycled. The campus has drastically decreased the contamination rate of recycling over the last four years. That has actually resulted in a reduction of the amount of material in the recycling, but an increase in the net amount that actually gets recycled,” said Danovitch.

The report found that some of the most basic recyclable materials were being missorted. Only 45 percent of recyclable bottles and cans ended up in the recycling while 55 percent was thrown into the trash. Only 37 percent of recyclable paper was recycled, while 58 percent was put in the trash, and 5 percent was put into composting. 

Chantal Reyes ’22, a ’19-20 Zero Waste President’s Sustainability Research Fellow, emphasized the importance of diverting as much waste as possible from being put in the trash. 

“At all costs, we should try and avoid throwing things into the trash can as it ends up being sent to the Covanta incinerator in Chester. We can avoid burning trash that would end up in the lungs of Chester residents as well as our own lungs since we are pretty close to Chester,” wrote Reyes in a draft of an email that will be sent to the campus community next week and was shared with The Phoenix.

According to Danovitch, the report shows that the college’s actions have made a positive impact.

“The college has implemented what is clearly the established best practices; there’s recycling and compost and trash at every location. And I think what this report shows is [the waste streams] have become cleaner because of that investment in both education, the presentations and signage, and in the uniformity of containers. And so by following those best practices and implementing them across campus, [waste streams] become cleaner, and we’ve seen the diversion rate increase,” said Danovitch.

Melissa Tier ’14, the Sustainability Program Manager, thinks the report will inform how the college works to achieve its Zero Waste goals moving forward.

“I think it helps us make arguments for different types of behavior change [and] different types of educational efforts … How do we improve our educational approach and then campus policies? If one type of cup is compostable but another isn’t, that’s very confusing. So having more campus-wide policies will help improve both diversion and reduction of waste,” said Tier.

Tier also expects the report will be an important factor in creating more specific goals for the Zero Waste initiative.

“I feel like we’ve reached the point where we have the baseline data, so we can be more explicit in defining quantifiable goals … We’re at that point of reassessing [the goals of the 2017 Zero Waste Plan] semester as we write the 2020 Zero Waste plan,” said Tier.  

Reyes hopes to expand the scope of the college’s Zero Waste Initiative beyond just the diversion rate of waste collected in bins.

“We’re working to measure the schools environmental justice impact … There are so many things that don’t factor into the actual diversion rate of the school. For example, wastewater, our use of energy, or recycling and labor impacts. Just a lot of behind the scenes stuff that we don’t think about when we’re consuming things and the overall production process of those things,” said Reyes.

Danovitch echoed Reyes’ sentiment.

“I think that is the goal of a lot of this work; it’s not just ‘how does the campus end up Zero Waste?’ but ‘how do we change systems of consumption so we can all be zero waste?'” said Danovitch.

Tier also mentioned that the college is hopeful that there may be options other than sending trash to incineration in Chester.

“In Delaware County, we are required by law to send trash to incineration at Covanta in Chester … We’re very aware that the Delaware County government has changed since November. We knew before this that the Republicans in control were not interested in changing the statute.

Now we don’t know the status, we don’t know the new council members’ opinions, and they may not have an opinion yet. It’s an interesting moment to just try being in conversation with them and say, we’re really interested in not having this [statute],” said Tier.

After the release of the final report to the entire campus community, the Zero Waste working group will hold a series of community feedback events to get input on the drafting of the new 2020 Zero Waste Plan.

Photo courtesy of Princeton Huang for The Phoenix

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