‘An audacious goal’: UC Berkeley struggles to achieve zero waste

Leonie Leonida/Staff

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With the year 2020 rapidly approaching, UC Berkeley has only diverted a little more than half the solid waste from landfills necessary to reach its zero waste by 2020 goal — leaving students more than “a little disappointed” that the campus did not do more to encourage waste reduction efforts several years ago.

In 2004, the UC Office of the President launched the UC systemwide goal of zero waste by 2020, which would entail diverting 90 percent of municipal solid waste from landfills through recycling, composting, reselling or donating. It also called for 50 percent waste diversion by 2008 and 75 percent diversion by 2012.

In 2013, UC Berkeley implemented the UC’s zero waste by 2020 goal.

As of 2018, UC Berkeley had only managed to achieve a waste diversion rate of 54 percent.

Shortcomings and challenges

UC Berkeley currently trails behind the majority of the other UC schools in meeting zero waste goals. UC Irvine currently leads its sister schools with a diversion rate of 82 percent, and UC San Francisco follows closely behind with a diversion rate of 78 percent.

Campus senior and environmental science major Sophie Babka said that at this rate, the campus may not reach its zero waste by 2020 goal.

Just last year, UC Berkeley received criticism from students for allegedly distributing “compostable utensils” that, despite their labeling, actually cannot be broken down by compost facilities.

Babka, who wrote her honors thesis on compostable plastic recovery in California, discovered that most compost facilities in the state are unable to accept compostable plastics, including the “compostable” utensils distributed by campus vendors. Babka said the plastics require a longer time period to break down than the duration of most compost facility treatment processes — therefore, facilities sort them with other landfill-bound waste.

Babka said that after talking to compost facilities in California, many of them revealed that compostable plastics are actually a “burden” and can even be detrimental to waste management processes, as they typically melt faster than normal plastic and can ruin an entire batch of recycling.

“Compostable plastics are just another form of single-use plastic — they’re not solving the bigger picture,” Babka said.

In her thesis, Babka attributed this issue to a lack of communication between waste producers and the waste industry. She encouraged the campus to work directly with compost facilities to engage in compostable plastic test trials and work together to find a solution.

“The campus definitely needs to do a better job, because they’re not going reach their (zero waste by 2020) goal,” Babka said.

Environmentally backed ASUC Senator Anna Whitney noted a few campus programs focused on waste reduction that did not pan out as planned, including a dishware program initiated by her office through which campus organizations could borrow dishes for events. Whitney said she initially partnered with Cal Catering in this effort, but she added that this partnership has been challenging, so the program has not yet come to fruition.

In another attempt to reduce UC Berkeley’s environmental footprint, the campus partnered with Brita GmbH in 2017 to provide every freshman student with a free Brita water bottle to promote the concept of reusability. Whitney said that although providing reusable products for free made the effort of reducing waste more affordable, every student received a bottle regardless of whether or not they already had one, so many bottles were wasted.

Whitney added that the campus does not have all the infrastructure nor the resources needed to raise the diversion rate, citing the attempt to install new waste-specified bins on campus. Not every campus building has uniform waste bins, and incorporating more buildings into this initiative is a “key element” to reaching the zero waste goal, Whitney said.

Addressing a lagging initiative

Cal Zero Waste staff associate Nicole Haynes said the campus has only recently taken significant action to invest more in zero waste efforts — something she said the campus should have done 10 years ago.

Recognizing that UC Berkeley was behind in terms of reaching the policy’s benchmarks for waste reduction, the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability partnered with the campus Office of Sustainability, or OS, and Campus Recycling and Refuse Services to release the UC Berkeley Zero Municipal Solid Waste plan, which outlines a course for the campus to eventually meet the zero waste by 2020 goal.

“Zero waste is a practice; it’s a philosophy — redesigning our system so that there’s a heavy emphasis on reduce and reuse,” said Cal Zero Waste specialist Izzy Parnell-Wolfe. “(It is a) holistic approach of reimagining the whole system.”

The plan focuses on efforts to reduce, reuse, repair and then recycle and compost, in that order, and predicts that the expansion of downstream services — including expanding recycling services and providing composting bins throughout campus — will aid the campus in reaching 75 percent diversion from landfills.

In 2017, Scott Silva, lead associate for UC Berkeley’s Zero Waste Research Center, which exists under the umbrella of the campus Student Environmental Resource Center, or SERC, was invited to represent the campus at a UC committee meeting to revise the Zero Waste by 2020 initiative. Silva said that at the time, the term “zero waste” entailed 95 percent diversion — during the meeting, however, the committee voted to change the initiative to focus on 90 percent diversion.

Regardless, Silva said it is important to keep the zero waste by 2020 goal in mind. The campus OS publishes an annual report evaluating the campus’s efforts to achieve 90 percent waste diversion, which addresses why the campus is not meeting this goal and how it can improve.

An ‘archaic’ method for measuring waste

Though UC Berkeley currently trails most of its sister schools in waste diversion, Silva said the campus is not “failing.”

Silva added that diversion rate is an “archaic” method of measuring progress, as it does not account for total waste reduction. Silva said the campus’s overall waste has decreased by one-third since 2012, though this fact may not reflected in the diversion rate if the percentage of waste the campus diverts each year remains stagnant.

Silva, who works closely with the Cal Zero Waste office on projects aimed at promoting a circular economy — a regenerative approach to production in which items are repurposed instead of disposed of — added that diversion rate also fails to highlight special projects that may contribute to waste reduction.

One such project includes the plastic recycling facility that Silva is currently working on. Starting in fall 2019, the facility will begin processing campus waste by using “valuable and clean” plastic recyclables to create 3D printer filaments and athletic apparel. According to Silva, this recycling research facility will be the first of its kind on a college campus and the first closed-loop, community-led effort to handle waste.

Silva also encouraged the campus to focus on engagement in zero waste strategies from students, faculty and staff, rather than looking solely at diversion rate.

Whitney said that in terms of waste diversion, reducing is more important than recycling.

“Recycling is so reliant on the end of a (product’s life),” Whitney said. “If we want to design a more waste-resilient society, the key is to reduce waste.”

Silva added that the goal is to work toward a circular economy, which involves a culture shift away from single-use items. According to Silva, the waste problem will only worsen “if we perpetuate this single-use culture.”

“Saying that the zero waste by 2020 goal fails is really demoting and depreciating of the work that’s been done by students and by staff,” Silva said.

Haynes agreed with Silva’s sentiment, adding that the campus is constantly improving its attempt to reduce the amount of waste per capita per day — during the 2017-18 academic year, the campus diverted about 0.97 pounds of waste per capita per day.

Working toward an ‘ambitious’ goal

The campus’s most recent effort at improving waste reduction includes the creation of the ASUC Zero Waste Student Advisory Committee, which consists of members from various environmental groups on campus — including SERC, Cal Zero Waste, the Housing and Dining Sustainability team and UC Berkeley Sustainability and Energy. Haynes, the chair of this committee, said that as a cohesive, organized group, the committee can “combine forces and make a bigger impact” by putting more pressure on campus administration to invest more into zero waste initiatives.

“Call me an optimist,” Haynes said. “But … I’m really looking forward to what I think we can do as long as we’re organized.”

Cal Zero Waste has initiated several programs over the years to reduce waste on campus, including the Bin List, through which Cal Zero Waste distributes and manages waste-specified bins. “Standard sets” of bins that promote composting and recycling can be found throughout campus. A complete set includes four bins — one each for landfill, cans and bottles, mixed paper and compost. Each of these bins houses a lid to conceal odors, deter pests and reduce contamination.

Campus Sustainability Director and Cool Campus Challenge founder Kira Stoll said in an email that even with the separate waste bins, a large amount of organic material ends up in landfill bins. She added that if the campus becomes accustomed to placing organic material in compost bins rather than landfill bins, achieving a diversion rate of 75 to 80 percent might be possible, bringing the campus one step closer to its goal of zero waste by 2020.

“With bins in place and great education and engagement this goal is achievable,” Stoll said in an email.

Stoll noted a few student-led programs that have increased waste diversion, including ReUSE, a program that provides spaces on campus for people to exchange, donate and purchase reusable items, both diverting reusable goods from landfills and providing an “affordable and accessible” resource for students. According to ReUSE President Serena Hughes, all the profits go to charity.

Stoll added that ReUSE plays a large role in reducing waste on campus, as a lot of waste can accumulate, especially toward the end of the academic year when students are moving out of their residences. Hughes said that in May 2017, ReUSE collected about 500 pounds of donated clothes.

“The first step is really just noticing how much you waste — it’s really easy to just not pay it any mind,” Hughes said. “If you’re just mindful … just notice every time you’re looking for a trash can … every little thing really does make a difference.”

Hughes described the zero waste by 2020 goal as “ambitious,” but something that the campus should strive to achieve. The Bin List initiative has been a positive contributor to diversion, she said, though she added that she would like to see a larger campuswide effort to reduce “wasteful” electricity use.

‘Greenest academic building in the country’: Chou Hall

Though the campus as a whole still has much progress to make in order to collectively achieve 90 percent diversion, individual buildings have already made strides. In December, Connie and Kevin Chou Hall, part of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, was named the “greenest academic building in the country” after earning Total Resource Use and Efficiency, or TRUE, Zero Waste Platinum certification.

In order to qualify for TRUE Zero Waste certification, a building must have achieved at least 90 percent diversion of solid waste from landfills, incineration and the environment during the past 12 months. Chou Hall has had an average waste diversion rate of 94 percent since its opening in August 2017, according to campus graduate student Jessica Heiges, a student lead on the Chou Hall Zero Waste Initiative.

Heiges said in an email that Chou Hall was originally built with sustainability in mind, acting as a “learning laboratory” to provide information on how to implement sustainable practices into an academic facility. To maintain the building’s certification, the team must submit the building’s diversion rate and conduct an annual waste audit.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the building will remain compliant (with its certification requirements),” Heiges said in an email. “The importance of that cannot be understated as it has created a blueprint for all other buildings on Berkeley’s campus as well as the other UC campuses, to decrease their waste footprint.”

‘An incredible goal’: Campus efforts moving forward

In the wake of Chou Hall’s success, the campus plans to construct other buildings with the intention of obtaining TRUE Zero Waste certification, as well as retrofit current buildings to achieve this goal.

Heiges said in an email that the Zero Waste by 2020 initiative has created a campus culture that questions current norms of consumption and has spurred positive action, including providing momentum for the Chou Hall Zero Waste Initiative.

Moving forward, Haynes said reducing waste is not about one person changing their behavior, but rather the ripple effect that one person can create by doing something as simple as carrying a stainless steel straw or a reusable mug. She noted that in an effort to promote a “culture change,” CalPIRG is in the process of creating a starter pack containing reusable items for incoming students.

Haynes added that small changes in individual behavior can ignite a “social pressure,” though she said this must be backed by institutional changes to be effective.

Whitney agreed with Haynes’ sentiment, adding that institutional changes should be aimed at changing the status quo to make the process of making sustainable decisions “automatic” for students.

Maintaining an optimistic outlook, Whitney said she does not see 2020 as the endpoint in the effort to reach zero waste, but rather as a “jumping-off point” for continuing and expanding current efforts.

“It is an incredible goal,” Heiges said in an email. “Yes, it is an audacious goal, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its merits.”

Sabina Mahavni covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sabina_mahavni.