UC Berkeley community must work to reduce waste misdirected to landfills

Illustration of Chou Hall with trash on the floor.
Vivian Du/Staff

I’m sitting in the shiny, beautiful and impeccable new Connie & Kevin Chou Hall located in UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business — a building that has been praised for generating absolutely zero waste. Well, this claim is simply not true.

The opening of Chou Hall has been anticipated by many for a while, and the hall has been marketed as the greenest building on campus. And not just the greenest building on campus — Chou Hall is, in fact, certified as the greenest academic building in the country. Yes, the entire United States of America. But get this: It has not one single black trash bin in sight.

Achieving zero waste is just as easy as getting rid of our landfill bins, right? Well, no — without the landfill bins, students are actually sometimes just throwing away their trash in the compost bin or the recycling bin instead. This creates an ever greater dilemma and causes our compostable waste to be tainted with materials that are not biodegradable. Also, without any landfill bins, holders of large events are forced to throw away their noncompostable waste in other nearby landfill bins.

Missorting our trash has health impacts that are often not seen or thought about. Throwing away a plastic bag in the recycling bin has more health implications than you may think. When collecting trash, campus custodians and groundskeepers empty the recycling bins’ contents into larger bins that will later be hauled to a collection site. At this collection site, trash, compostables and recyclables are evaluated, and if one bin has too many items that are not supposed to be in there, it ultimately becomes sorted as landfill waste. In Alameda County, nearly 36 percent of landfill waste consists of recyclable goods that were likely missorted, according to the Alameda County 2017-18 Waste Characterization Study. This missorting leads to an increasing mountain of landfill waste that takes up space, and if not managed properly, it has the potential to pollute water sources around the area. This, in turn, puts the locals in the area at risk.

Being in the Bay Area, our campus is often seen as the mecca of sustainability and going green. It is almost an obligation that UC Berkeley, as the largest university in the Bay, paves the road for sustainability and green practices. Advertising Chou Hall as the greenest building across all UC campuses is just blatant misinformation. Chou Hall is indeed energy-efficient, but we cannot continue to label it as a zero-waste building just because we have taken all the trash and moved it somewhere else.

The current status of our campus’s goal to achieve zero waste by 2020 is not too promising. With less than a year left, UC Berkeley has only diverted about 54 percent of the solid waste from landfills necessary to reach its zero waste by 2020 goal.

In order to entirely achieve zero waste, it will take a campuswide effort that includes work on the part of the faculty and student body. Being mindful of what you purchase and what it is packaged in is a good way to start. Buying reusable straws so you do not have to keep using those nonrecyclable boba straws is also something that you could do. As small as these things seem, it takes collective action to spark change in a community. Being the No. 1 public university in the world must mean something. If anything, we should all be mindful of where we throw away our trash, what we are buying and how we are impacting our community environmentally.

Kelia Liang is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying environmental science.