RecycleMania, an eight-week recycling competition, celebrated its 19th anniversary this year with more than 300 colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada participating in the challenge. The University of Michigan placed first for the first time in the large-campus division for zero waste.

To participate in the competition, contestants track all sources of waste generated weekly, aiming for a high percentage of waste recycled or composted and a small percentage sent to landfills. The zero-waste category the University competed in is recommended for campuses with advanced waste reduction programs, zero-waste plans and policies in place and the ability to weigh sources of municipal solid waste.

In an effort to produce zero waste, the University strives for a high diversion rate, which is the percentage of total waste diverted from landfills and recycled or composted instead. This is calculated for each building.

The competition, originally set to run from Feb. 2 to March 7, was shortened to five weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the five weeks, the University collected more than 544,200 pounds of recyclables and 304,440 pounds of compost. 

At the same time, the University organized an intra-campus competition called “Battle of the Buildings,” where different campus buildings competed against one another other in hopes of having the highest diversion rate. The Buhr Building placed first in this competition with a diversion rate of 76.11 percent and the Dana Building was second with a rate of 75.51 percent.

Alison Richardson, the recycling coordinator at the Office of Campus Sustainability, has organized the University’s participation in RecycleMania since its first year in 2006. Richardson said the zero-waste category in the competition was a great opportunity for the University because of all the efforts towards zero waste already taking place on campus. 

“The culmination of new signage, a lot of effort to expand composting and zero-waste events and general campus engagement to educate people helped us do well in that category,” Richardson said. 

Richardson said the only change in workload with RecycleMania was calculating rates weekly, since data is collected year-round from all pickup locations. According to University’s Waste Management Services, this occurs whenever there is a pickup of landfill, recycling and compost.

The Battle of the Buildings continues to be an important part of the competition to further work on waste reduction in different buildings on campus. However, with each building’s different characteristics and level of usage, Richardson said OCS tries to tailor their messaging to the specific activities and foot traffic of the building.

“I think there is always an opportunity for future years for that competition to further tailor our outreach and messaging and engage those building occupants in a slightly different way depending on the unique needs of their building,” Richardson said. 

Richardson also said the campus environment is a great environment to pilot new programs and efforts, given the number of committees and resources dedicated to working towards more waste reduction and sustainability. 

“There are always new opportunities to experiment with different strategies and get feedback from the campus,” Richardson said. “There’s always students who are engaged and eager to think of new ideas we can try out or push initiatives forward.” 

According to Katrina Folsom in an email to The Daily, OCS marketing and communications specialist, OCS regularly works with students in a variety of capacities. 

“Typically OCS hires student interns to assist with various projects such as mapping waste streams at the hospital or supporting zero waste events,” Folsom said. “There are many opportunities for students to get involved in waste reduction and other sustainability efforts through initiatives run by some of our partners such as the Planet Blue Ambassadors program and the Student Sustainability Coalition.” 

Folsom also shared how the pandemic will require alteration of the delivery of some OCS programs, but many of OCS’ sustainability efforts will continue as usual.  

“We are currently planning physically distanced safe practices to restart our ChEM Reuse program, which enables labs to request free supplies and equipment donated by other researchers to keep them out of landfills,” Folsom said. “After years or progress in making reusable items like mugs and bags a natural choice for many people, waste reduction is challenged by the uptick in use of disposable products like takeout packaging…we’re reassured  that many sustainability efforts continue as usual, such as the collection of recycling and compost.” 

LSA senior Arynne Wegryn-Jones, South Quad dining hall student manager, was planning to include her experiences about waste reduction efforts in the dining hall to do a waste audit of South Quad for part of her thesis project. 

Jones said this past year was the first year compost bins were accessible to students in South Quad. As part of the waste audit, she was going to have housing staff bring all the compost, recycling and landfill bin contents to the loading dock. They were then going to weigh each of the different categories of waste and then identify and weigh contamination. 

“Maybe even if we had enough volunteers and enough resources, we could even identify where the most common sources of contamination were and see if there were items that people commonly thought were compostable but weren’t and investigate why,” Jones said. 

Proper composting and ways to relay that message have been areas of trial and error within the South Quad dining hall according to Jones. Pre-consumer compost — composting parts of foods people cut off before cooking them such as carrot tops — is handled well in all the dining halls, but post-consumer compost –– the compost which takes place after eating –– is much more challenging. 

“One thing that we’ve had a problem with this year and in previous years is that South Quad has a lot of trash cans available,” Jones said. “One thing I talked to the upper management of South Quad about is how are we going to expect these people to compost through the dish room when there’s trash cans everywhere and people think they’re helping us out by tossing their napkins or banana peels in the trash cans.”

Jones believes students physically throwing their items into the compost bins is a valuable educational opportunity for demonstrating how to recycle.

“If we remove the trash cans, that kind of funnels everyone towards the dish room where they can put their stuff on the carousel, but even then, people are not directly putting their items in the compost bin,” Jones said. “I think it is a cool educational opportunity for someone to put their item in the compost.” 

After months of talking to upper management, the trash cans were removed from the dining hall and a triplet set of bins marked for compost, recycling and landfill were put by the dishroom. 

Jones mentioned one of the best parts about working at South Quad is how receptive the upper level management is to student inquiries and ideas. 

“If you are a student, they want to hear your opinion and it is really cool how accurate that is.” Jones said. 

Jones said the biggest effect of MDining’s switch to single-use service items was having the post-consumer waste aspect of the dining experience be out of their hands. 

“It is frustrating how the waste production had to take a pause, but we had to shift our focus to making sure students still got what they wanted and everything they needed and all we could do is hope they were taking the food somewhere with access to a compost bin,” Jones said.

Jones emphasized that she believes a short curriculum should be implemented into freshmen orientation to continue the progress made in the dining halls with the likelihood that single-use serving materials will be used. 

“I think there is a lot of different opportunities that we have, in the same way that we educate students on sexual assault prevention and safe alcohol consumption, we can educate them on responsible waste diversion,” Jones said.  

 

Daily Staff Reporter Celene Philip can be reached at celenep@umich.edu

 

 

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