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Credited as the most educated city in the United States, Ann Arbor is home to over 50,000 students, exceptional professors and a top Environment and Sustainability School. With an educated populace of this caliber, it is no shock the University of Michigan has sustainability goals to help combat the irreversible global warming threshold we are set to pass by 2027. That said, the University’s waste sustainability goal of reducing waste sent to landfills by 40% by 2025 is shockingly lower than other top institutions. For example, Stanford University has a zero waste goal by 2030, meaning they want to reach a 90% waste diversion rate in just 10 years.

The fact that other institutions have waste diversion goals that are double the University of Michigan’s highlights a core failing: the University’s waste diversion goal is unsettling and weak for a well-educated and resource-abundant institution. The University’s leadership is well aware of the importance to take immediate action and the University has the resources to do so, yet the University is incredibly behind its peers. As a top university, the University of Michigan has a social responsibility to our planet’s and its students’ future to devise a more aggressive waste diversion plan.

In 2016, the University began a campus-wide waste bin standardization project. The project was finished in just two years, installing 8,632 waste bins composed of designer bins, basic bins and repurposed bins. While important changes were made, this project mainly focused on the aesthetic and labeling of waste bins rather than expanding trash, recycling and compost collection to all regions of campus; all efforts went into waste bins being placed inside hallways, classrooms, residential halls and other indoor areas — no effort went into high-traffic outside areas. 

As the University’s Ann Arbor campus requires students to walk from class to class, it is a problem that the only option for throwing away trash outside is in old metal bins scattered erratically around campus. This contributes to the waste problem at the University because the recent bin standardization project did not focus on exterior parts of campus. On Sept. 16 at 8:50 a.m., I saw a screaming example of this issue. As I walked to class, I was greeted by a metal trash can outside Mason Hall, filled to the brim with waste. The trash can was filled with paper cups, plastic bottles and glass containers that could be repurposed through recycling, but instead, they will waste away in a landfill. A banana peel and apple core also sat on top, wishing to be placed in a compost bin — instead they will rot in a landfill and produce methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. This trash buildup could have been avoided if the University had accessible recycling and compost bins located outside.

C/o Ashley Dukellis

In contrast to the University of Michigan’s waste project, another major university, the University of Southern California, instituted a waste bin standardization project in 2018 that focused on waste diversion on both the interior and exterior of campus. Their project focused on installing 234 multi-stream waste bins, clearly labeled and having instructions for landfill, recycling, compost and liquid waste all placed together cohesively. When walking around the campus, their waste system is easily accessible at all locations — you do not go more than a short distance before accessing another multi-stream waste bin.

As I transferred to the University of Michigan from USC this year, I have first-hand experience on both campuses. At USC, I was extremely impressed to see the effectiveness of its waste bin program — most students recycled and composted because of the accessibility. With that, USC has already surpassed the University of Michigan’s 2025 40% waste diversion goal as of June 2022, totaling 48.1% waste diversion. USC’s effective multi-stream waste diversion project demonstrates that Michigan has the potential to reach, if not surpass, its sustainability goal by placing recycling and compost bins outdoors.

At the University of Michigan, this waste issue goes far deeper than reaching sustainability goals: It also impacts the happiness of over 50,000 students. When walking through campus, frustration arises when seeing overfilled waste bins or ill-sorted trash. Students mindful of the environment wince at trash cans, having to hold onto their waste until they come across indoor disposable bin. Those those who are less environmentally aware may pause for a second, looking for an accessible recycling bin outdoors, and with no alternative, condemn their Starbucks cup to life in a landfill.

The visual impact of overflowing waste receptacles and the internal guilt of wrongfully throwing away a recyclable item directly impacts the happiness of the student body. Studies demonstrate having cleaner surroundings directly improves the mental well-being of individuals. “To the brain, clutter represents unfinished business and this lack of completeness can be highly stressful.” On a campus of high-achieving students, and with lingering mental impacts of COVID-19, any additional “clutter” can easily trigger more unnecessary stress, anxiety or depression. With that, the visual impact of overflowing waste bins and ethical stress for environmentally conscious individuals directly impacts student happiness at the University.

As the University is dedicated to helping create a sustainable future, change is easily possible. As seen in the University’s waste diversion project in 2016, the University has the ability to execute its plans with sustainability issues. Moving forward, the University should target the large sector of outdoor space ignored in the past. As seen from the success of the University of Southern California’s waste diversion plan, the University of Michigan should follow a similar path and install multi-stream waste bins outdoors. As other universities around the United States have proven the success of using such bins, Michigan will see great improvement on its campus. This upgrade of waste receptacles will help fight against climate change and irreversible environmental impacts. By doing this, the University will also be improving the well-being of over 50,000 students on its campus. 

Ashley Dukellis is a sophomore in the College of LSA and can be reached at dukellis@umich.edu.