New Emory policy seeks zero landfill waste

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Nov. 14, 2017

In a new video, Emory University leaders, including President Claire E. Sterk, discuss the importance of Emory's new waste management policy and how the campus community can help achieve the goal of zero landfill waste.

When Emory crafted its current Sustainability Vision, one of the university’s most transformative — and ambitious — goals was a commitment to divert 95 percent of campus waste from municipal landfills by 2025, effectively a zero-waste policy.

To achieve that, Emory’s Office of Sustainability and Division of Campus Services have partnered to introduce a new waste management policy that engages the entire campus in the push to enhance recycling efforts.

The new policy calls for:

  • Installing more standardized, color-coded central recycling stations in all major university buildings throughout campus;
  • Adapting outdoor recycling bins to collect composting and recyclable material, but not landfill waste;
  • Establishing central collection stations for hard-to-recycle items, such as glass, batteries, CFL and LED lightbulbs, aerosol spray cans, and toner cartridges;
  • Emory faculty and staff will collect and self-sort their own desk-side waste and recyclables at designated recycling stations in their respective workplaces.
  • Creating a new team of waste specialists to remove compost and recycling from campus collection stations.

The new policy will apply to all Emory University properties, including the Atlanta and Oxford College campuses, where the university provides routine facilities management services. Policies for Emory Healthcare facilities are currently under review.

“Emory’s commitment to sustainability is really made manifest when we pursue these kind of changes,” says Ciannat Howett, director of the Office of Sustainability Initiatives. “This is all about walking the talk of ethical behavior and creating a sustainable future.”

The university will begin transitioning into the new policy in January 2018, but the Emory community can learn more about the environmental, public health and social justice underpinnings that are driving the changes in a new video.

“Landfills have negative social, economic and environmental impacts on our neighborhoods — disproportionately for our lowest income neighborhoods,” Emory President Claire E. Sterk explains in the video.

“They also are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Composting, on the other hand, sequesters carbon and helps grow our food,” she says, urging the Emory community to “do your part to sort items into compost and recycling bins rather than landfill and waste.”

“We owe it to our surrounding communities and future generations for Emory to lead the way to a post-landfill future,” Sterk adds.

Campus recycling with convenience, consistency

To determine how the university can achieve its bold goals in waste diversion, Emory turned to experts at two West Coast firms, Cascadia Consulting Group and Burns & McDonnell, who assisted in developing the plan.

“While Emory has a long history of sustainability practices, sometimes it’s helpful to have external eyes evaluate where you are,” Howett says. “They made it clear that we would have to make significant changes.”

The recommendation? “We really needed to have more consistency and convenience at campus collection stations,” she says. “Currently, we have a hodge-podge of collection bins on campus, not always standardized in terms of their look and their signage, which was creating confusion about how to properly sort waste.”

Although Emory currently diverts around 95 percent of its campus construction waste, the university only diverted about half of its overall waste stream from landfills last year, says Howett, noting there is room for improvement.

Much of the challenge is simply knowing how to effectively sort recyclables from compost, material which degrades naturally, Howett says.

“Compost has to be segregated,” Howett says. “When the consultants audited our waste stream, they were seeing a lot of contamination from desk-side collection bins, such as white paper mixed with soft drink cans and banana peels, which meant the entire bin had to go to the landfill.”

“The audit showed that 60 to 70 percent of our waste stream was food,” she notes. “By composting, we are taking all of that out of the landfill stream, which is a major contributor to climate change, and turning it into soil that grows our food and sequesters carbon.”

In response, new, standardized campus recycling bins will feature clear common signage. Sustainability representatives are partnering with building occupants to pinpoint best locations for workplace recycling collection centers, which will feature five bins to receive white paper, mixed paper, plastics and metals, compost and landfill waste. Glass will only be collected at designated collection points.

Outdoor campus recycling bins will also be standardized, allowing for compostable materials and mixed recycling, with the exception of glass, which may be taken to designated collection sites. Bins that once received materials bound for the landfill will be removed from exterior sites, Howett says.

Promoting a culture of waste diversion

For most Emory employees, the biggest change will be a shift in responsibility for taking care of their own personal desk-side waste and recyclables, notes Howett. 

“Our experts recommended all units of Emory University, including Oxford College, remove servicing of desk-side waste bins,” she explains. “Studies have shown that when people self-sort there is a reduction in the amount of waste generated and recycling rates go up, because they are more mindful of their habits.”

While desk-side recycling bins will remain, they will no longer be emptied by campus custodians, who will focus solely on cleaning. A new waste specialist team will also be created to improve recycling collection, says Matthew Early, vice president for Campus Services.

To help, Early is evaluating providing desk-side trash can liners and disposable gloves at workplace recycling stations. Those who face mobility limitations in emptying their own desk-side receptacles may seek accommodation by contacting Emory’s Office of Accessibility Services, part of the Office of Equity and Inclusion.

Under the current Sustainability Vision, all university events will be expected to yield no landfill waste by 2025, a goal that will be phased in. Beginning next year, events with more than 100 attendees will be zero waste. Events that exceed 50 attendees will be zero waste beginning in 2019.

Throughout the upcoming transition, Early urges both open communication and patience as the university prepares for “this new culture of waste diversion.”

Early notes that the new policy will result in neither job cuts for campus custodians nor an appreciable cost savings. “In fact, by adding new recycling specialists, we may actually require additional personnel,” he says.

Though the policy changes will require increased campus awareness and participation, the overall social, health and environmental benefits to the larger Atlanta community are incalculable, says Early.

“I understand this will be a cultural change for all of us,” Early acknowledges. “But if we’re willing to get behind Emory’s sustainability vision, we have to be willing to do the work behind the words. We can’t just say we mean it, we have to demonstrate that with our actions, as well.

“I think that’s what Emory has always been about,” he adds. “I’m proud to be a part of the community because of what we are willing to strive for.”

For more information or to review a copy of the new waste policy, visit the Office of Sustainability website.