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Campus participation in new waste policy spurs results

With strong community participation, Emory’s new waste diversion policy is already making an impact, diverting nearly 70 percent of total campus waste from landfills in March alone. Emory Photo/Video

Within a few months of its launch, a new Emory policy that aims to significantly increase the amount of campus waste being diverted from area landfills is already making an impact.

Introduced in January, the new Campus Waste Management Policy seeks to divert 95 percent of waste from municipal landfills by 2025 — effectively a zero waste policy — through a targeted strategy that includes standardized and expanded recycling bins and widespread community engagement.

And based upon recycling data collected by Emory’s Division of Campus Services, it’s working. 

Comparing landfill diversion rates for Emory’s total waste stream from March 2017 to March 2018, diversion of campus waste increased by an additional 94 tons over last year. 

Examining year-to-year numbers for March, Emory saw the total waste diverted from area landfills rise from 411.35 tons to 506.198 tons, increasing the campus diversion rate from 55.1 percent to 69.9 percent — a new all-time record, says Ciannat Howett, director of the Office of Sustainability Initiatives.

Campus waste diversion rates also jumped in January over the same time last year, up to 68.1 percent over 60.9 percent, and held steady in February at 68.3 percent, the same as last year.

While April figures are not yet available, that’s a promising start toward an ambitious goal, according to Howett. “In a matter of months we’ve seen an incredible jump, which is really encouraging.” 

Matthew Early, vice president for Campus Services, notes that it’s been exciting to see the Emory community engage with recycling and sustainability practices that are already proving effective and attracting the interest of other institutions. 

“The numbers show us that the new policy not only outlines a path toward change, it’s making a difference,” he says.

Change powered by community 

Howett credits much of the program’s early success to the participation of the Emory community, and hopes to see campus waste diversion practices only grow stronger moving forward.

In January, faculty and staff were asked to begin collecting and self-sorting their own desk-side waste and deposit it into workplace recycling stations. Students already encouraged to recycle benefited from access to an expansion of standardized recycling bins across campus.

Despite some initial concerns, Early reports that Campus Services recycling team members have not only seen an overall uptick in campus participation, but have also received feedback from campus community members “who are excited about the program and bringing us suggestions about what we can do to improve upon it.”

“I think people know it’s an opportunity to be more thoughtful and intentional,” Howett says. “And I really want to thank everyone for their efforts and ask them to continue to be diligent about taking the time to put their waste into the proper containers.”

Being vigilant about sorting recyclables and compostable items from the campus waste stream “is one simple task that takes just a few seconds to do, but has a tremendous impact,” she adds.

“So often, when people are trying to take positive actions, it’s hard to see the impact,” Howett says. “I hope the whole Emory community can see that yes, every member of the community who is sorting our waste is making a huge difference.”

Not only is less waste going into neighborhoods where landfills are located — often impacting low-income, minority populations — less noise, pollution and trash are drifting into those neighborhoods, Howett notes.

In addition, many recycled and composted materials are being plugged back into the economy.

Materials such as food waste and compostable food containers from Cox Hall are finding a new life as soil amendments that will be used by area farmers to grow food. Similarly, plastics and aluminum products are used by vendors eager to repurpose them into recyclable products, she says.

In addition, diverting more waste helps the university avoid paying landfill “tipping fees” required to bury waste, Howett says.

Empowering change at Emory and beyond

For Lacey Campbell, a rising junior in Emory College studying neuroscience and behavioral biology, the new waste policy has provided an empowering opportunity to help create change.

“It’s truly amazing to see the transformations that are physically occurring on campus because of the new waste policy, but more importantly, the transformations in students,” she explains.

At Harris Hall, Campbell says she saw “students who were no longer just mindlessly throwing waste into the landfill, but rather at the place they call home, they are recycling and composting … you could see progress and also a raised awareness.”

Campbell, who hails from a small town in Georgia that doesn’t even offer recycling services, has found “seeing the improvements that have come from this is very inspiring.”

Barbara Voss, a coordinator in the Office of Foundation Relations, views the new recycling program as both educational and exciting. “For some people there was some hesitation at first, because it was a change,” she acknowledges.

Now, those changes are shaping new habits in the workplace and beyond. And Voss, who has always been interested in the environment, has come to see it as a small, hands-on way for one person to really make a difference.

Sorting her own office waste takes only seconds. And she participates with the knowledge that her actions are helping to support the development of progressive new practices on a wider scale. 

“Hopefully, this is something we’ll begin to see happening around the entire country,” she says. “And Emory is at the forefront.”

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