UCSF Sustainability Stories
Ana Toepel, Green Impact, May 2018
UCSF Campus Keeps Waste Reduction Front and Center
San Francisco is just one of many cities around the country striving to become ‘zero waste’—not sending any waste to landfills or incinerators—through waste prevention, reducing consumption, reusing, recycling, and composting. Zero waste is considered one of the most effective and accessible climate action strategies a community can implement, resulting in energy savings, decreased pollution, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
The University of California (UC) system is also taking on this goal, with the aim to reach zero waste by 2020. To work toward this goal, UCSF’s Recycling and Waste Reduction Program has implemented a number of measures on campus that have achieved a 74.6% diversion rate (amount of waste kept from going to landfill) as of the end of FY 2017.
Daniel Chau, UCSF Recycling Analyst, says that the program is committed to doing whatever is possible to keep moving toward zero waste and encourages everyone in the UCSF community to participate in this endeavor.
Campus Takes Steps Toward Zero Waste
UCSF’s growing Recycling and Waste Reduction Program has proven valuable, not only moving the needle closer to the zero waste goal over the past five years, but also helping to reduce the amount of waste that’s generated by the campus community. Although new buildings and new staff have been added to the campus, the total waste numbers have not increased. This can be attributed not only to going paperless, but also to the program’s efforts and the community’s participation.
Chau, who has a background in sustainability and is passionate about doing something to benefit the environment, notes that he and the program’s team “are up for the zero waste challenge and are always thinking of new ways to get the campus there.” For the past few years, they have been evaluating the waste containers at each building weekly to see how well they’re working and making adjustments as needed. As outlined in UCSF’s FY 16-17 Annual Sustainability Report, they expanded this data collection program to include daily evaluation at the Mission Center Building and Laurel Heights, which now keeps 8-9 tons of material out of the landfill each month. With the success of the data collection program, the Recycling and Waste Reduction Program was able to hire more staff and plans to expand its data collection efforts even further.
Overall, Chau says, students tend to do pretty well with sorting waste, possibly because younger generations tend to be more familiar with recycling and composting. His team offers trainings, events, and education campaigns to help the entire campus community get up to speed, and they aim to provide more in the near future. A website launched in 2017, Zerowaste.ucsf.edu, was designed specifically to make it easier for people to sort their waste correctly.
Change Comes to Campus Waste Bins
Behind the scenes, the Recycling and Waste Reduction Program needs to stay current with the guidelines of its waste collection services provider, San Francisco’s Recology, to make sure UCSF’s waste is managed properly. Recology has recently made changes to its rules for sorting waste that require updating all of UCSF’s waste containers and waste reduction materials—and require the campus community to change its sorting habits.
Paper cups, paper cartons, and tetra paks for liquids: These now go into the recycling (blue bins), not the compost or garbage. Coffee cups, soup cartons, milk and juice cartons and boxes, and ice cream containers are included (any empty paper cup or carton that held a liquid substance). Paper to-go containers, paper napkins, and paper plates still go in the compost though.
The Recycling and Waste Reduction program will update the online waste sorting information, and after that all the bins and signage on campus. This is the perfect opportunity for the team to do an inventory of waste stations to make sure all buildings are outfitted with containers (recycling, compost, and garbage), as well as doing some marketing and rebranding to engage the campus community.
The new rules differ slightly for residential customers, and those who reside off-campus in San Francisco can now recycle bundled plastic wrap and plastic bags as well. Check here for information applicable to San Francisco residential customers.
You Can Help UCSF Meet Its Goal
We’ve all had that moment where we stood there stumped about which waste bin to throw something in—and then chose the trash by default. Though waste diversion rates are rising and sorting is often done correctly, some improvements can be made in the way waste is discarded on campus. According to Chau, “The zero waste goal is reachable, but the Recycling and Waste Reduction team can’t do it alone.” UCSF’s Sustainability Director, Gail Lee, echoes that, saying, “It will take the entire UCSF community’s support to meet the goal by reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting.” Education and signage is continuously being assessed as well to try and figure out what works best to help people sort properly.
About 40% of campus waste that currently goes to the landfill could be composted. Food waste is the greatest contributor to this number. Food should be put in the compost bin not in the garbage. Green compost bins are included at each waste disposal area on campus. Also, it’s important not to throw plastic bottles, straws, utensils, or glass bottles into the compost. If too many non-organic items are found in the compost, it will be rejected and sent to the landfill.
When you compost you help create a valuable resource, nutrient-rich soil to grow our food, and you help keep a harmful greenhouse gas out of our atmosphere. When food waste is thrown in the landfill, they decompose without oxygen and produce methane gas emissions, which are more potent than carbon dioxide. More importantly, compost applied to farmland actually absorbs carbon from the atmosphere providing two opportunities to reduce greenhouse gases. You can learn more about compost here.
Some plastics, like plastic to-go containers, are still thrown in the trash; they should go in the recycling bin. (Remember to dump food and paper items into the compost first.) 20% of what is now put in the garbage could likely be recycled.
As noted above, paper coffee cups are now recyclable, but liquids need to be dumped out first. Take care to not dump any liquids in the recycling bin. They damage the paper items there and make them unusable for recycling.
Better yet, make your morning coffee waste free. Carry your own to-go cup when you buy a beverage. If you are a UCSF employee, bring along the cup you received at the new employee orientation!
Batteries and electronics cannot be thrown in the garbage bins. These items require special handling. You can take batteries, cell phones, and other small electronics to the special materials drop-off locations on campus. For larger electronics, find a schedule of electronic waste drop-off days here .