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University of Texas at Austin Tackles Waste in the Workplace

To increase the university’s landfill diversion rate, a program was developed that includes changes to collection, recycling and composting on campus.

To reduce waste and divert more materials from the landfill, the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) launched the Zero Waste Workplace initiative during the spring 2018 semester. Begun as a pilot program in the Student Services Building, implementation in a second campus building, T.S. Painter Hall, is also nearing completion.

“[Since] fall 2015, Resource Recovery has been conducting waste audits throughout campus. These audits have identified new opportunities to help UT Austin achieve zero waste by its 2020 goal,” says Robert Moddrell, Resource Recovery manager.

The audits, which were conducted by Resource Recovery, a branch of facilities services that is responsible for the efficient reuse and redistribution of campus resources, helped to identify significant areas for improvement as the university works toward achieving the zero waste goals outlined in its Sustainability Master Plan. The findings showed that 40 percent of waste from education and general use buildings is compostable; 15 percent of materials sent to the landfill are recyclable in UT Austin’s current system; and multiple items that should be sent to Surplus Properties are being thrown away or left in the loading docks.

To increase UT Austin’s diversion rate, the Zero Waste Workplace program was developed and includes changes to collection, recycling and composting on campus, as well as increased student and staff education and outreach about the university’s zero waste practices.

One measure is using more transparent labeling for receptacles. “Common area bins and dumpsters will be relabeled and co-located to ensure recycling convenience and reduce confusion,” says Moddrell.

In the restrooms, more opportunities for composting will be introduced. “Paper towels from restrooms make up 10 percent of the entire campus waste stream,” says Moddrell. “Custodians in the building will start composting these paper towels collected from restrooms rather than landfilling them.” Composting also will be introduced in campus breakrooms.

To increase recycling rates and decrease contamination, deskside trash bins will be switched out for deskside mini bins in office spaces. The mini bins hang on the standard deskside recycling bins as a visual reminder to reduce waste and recycle more.

Shredded paper is not recyclable in the university’s current waste system; therefore, with the introduction of shredded paper composting, the university will provide initial compostable bags to building users who operate their own shredders for diversion from the landfill, says Moddrell. Also, to engage reuse, the university will place more office supply swap bins in centralized locations in buildings.

To get people on board with the program, the university conducts education and outreach. “Each building is encouraged to have occupants attend information sessions about the program, and we sign up ‘champions’ to assist in managing the contamination prior to implementing the breakroom compost portion of the program,” says Moddrell. “This part of the program is voluntary, as champions are required to manage the breakroom contamination, and if no occupants step forward to fill these roles, this part of the program is not implemented.”

Although successful, the implementation of the new zero waste initiatives have not been without challenges. “The biggest issue has been building interest in the program at the individual level. Each of us needs to take responsibility for our personal waste, and it is not something that most people think about on an ongoing basis,” says Moddrell. “While many issues like changing packaging to compostable materials are issues that are not managed at an individual level, things like recycling right and reducing our personal consumption of disposable items are things that each of us can do on a daily basis.”

The university plans to extend the program to the McCombs Business School buildings in the near future, as it continues to work toward the larger campus sustainability plan.

“The initiative fits into the greater sustainability goals in that without implementing composting and recycle right initiatives, we will not be able to further our diversion beyond 60 percent,” adds Moddrell. “[It] also provides training and information for those who are interested and offers an opportunity for individuals on campus to become involved at a higher level.”

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