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Compost, campus culture: What’s the next step for Zero Waste by 2020?

In 1970, Macalester students took responsible waste disposal into their own hands and initiated a grassroots recycling program. Students sustained the service until Facilities took over in 1986.
The recycling effort marked the first commitment in the Macalester community to reducing the waste destined for a landfill or incinerator.

Today, with the recent addition of campus-wide composting, the college is setting its sights on a goal of Zero Waste by 2020.

“When we did the sustainability plan in 2009. We put zero waste in there but we didn’t have a date on it,” Sustainability Manager Suzanne Hansen said. “So it was an aspirational goal that we thought we wouldn’t really be able to get to.”

Soon after, her office was informed that the city of St. Paul had set a goal of Zero Waste by 2020. “I said, ‘Oh really! We can’t be behind our city!’” she said.

The Sustainability Office also began to think about how they would define zero waste. According to their website, the Zero Waste Alliance’s definition of zero waste is “over 90% diversion of waste from landfills and incinerators.” The college ultimately decided to adopt this definition of zero waste: not a complete elimination of waste production, as the name might suggest, but a significant reduction.

The Facilities department did not see this as a dilution of the definition of zero waste.

“I think we’re still defining it as zero waste,” said Custodial Shift Supervisor Kyle Wright, who has been at the head of the Facilities side of the composting expansion. “There are some things that can never be included in zero waste.”

Hansen acknowledged the disconnect between Facilities and the Sustainability Office on the topic of zero waste.

“It’s not that Facilities necessarily doesn’t know or care about zero waste,” she said. “We have had a good relationship with Facilities, but they’ve recently had a whole bunch of staff changes.”

The information gap between the two offices should be somewhat mitigated, according to Hansen, when the Zero Waste Committee, a coalition of staff and students from various aspects of campus, meets for the first time this year. The meeting has been delayed because of intensive effort put into the composting expansion.

“Just getting composting up and running this year has taken up all our time and energy,” she said.

The Sustainability Office’s Zero Waste initiatives have been varied. They do not only include composting and recycling, but several reuse projects. Through Mac Free Swap, Onesies notebooks and a move-out effort to encourage students to donate rather than dispose of their unwanted items, the office is attempting to create a culture shift to help reach the 2020 objective.

“We as a college have said, ‘Yes, we’re going to be Zero Waste by 2020,’” Hansen said. “That’s our goal, but to make that actually operational requires not just my office or just Facilities. It actually requires everybody.”

Director of Facilities Nathan Lief expressed a similar sentiment.

“This needs to be a priority for the student body,” Lief said.

According to a 2006 waste audit at Macalester, 36 percent of the content by weight was compostable material, and 37 percent was material that could have been recycled. These numbers did not indicate that Macalester was in a position to achieve Zero Waste status by 2020. Wastewise conducted an evaluation of Macalester’s waste in 2010. The Minnesota-based sustainability consulting non-profit found that recyclable waste was reduced to 17 percent of the total, while compostable material increased to 45 percent of total waste.

“That was when we knew composting was our next big step,” Hansen said. “Compostables were a huge chunk.”
Since then, the figures have been moving in a positive direction, according to Hansen.

“I really did think it was aspirational until we started getting some data like 2011-2012,” she said. “We could get there.”
Statistics for the 2012-2013 school year are not yet available. Last year, the college switched its waste vendor from Eureka Recycling to Allied Waste Services. The new vendor measures waste quantities differently, and procuring comparable data has proven difficult.

“We’ve just been banging our head against a brick wall about data,” Hansen said. The initial data for last year appears to show a sharp increase in on-campus waste production.

“I just don’t believe we had twice as much waste as we had last year,” she said. “That just doesn’t make sense.”
Hansen is in the process of sorting the data to have it make more sense. “It gets very complicated very quickly to get accurate numbers,” she said.

Facilities also had limited data on waste progress for the same reasons. Lief offered a positive trend, however. “Composting is about 700 pounds per week now and growing,” he said.

Currently, the people behind Macalester’s Zero Waste by 2020 program do not know what they will do next.

“We don’t really quite know what our next big step is going to be,” Hansen said.

Wright and Lief offered some smaller-scale efforts, such as using more recycled materials in new building projects and replacing paper towels with hand dryers in bathrooms across campus.

Lief stressed that the 2020 goal carries less importance than the individual efforts that might happen in the process. “The goal is by 2020,” he said. “The important thing is that we’re learning as we move forward.”

Hansen said that although a complete elimination of waste is not feasible for the college, a 90 percent reduction has potential to succeed with the addition of campus-wide compost. “In 2006, it looked like we were never going to get there,” she said. “But now that we’re here, it looks like we could do it.”

October 18, 2013

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