Higher Education and Sustainability

Aquinas College focuses on zero-waste commitment

Students have moved up the zero-waste goal attainment deadline of 2020 to this year.

May 2, 2014
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Aquinas waste
Aquinas students are paying much closer attention to trash, including collecting, separating and weighing various forms of waste. Courtesy Aquinas College

You won’t find trashcans in any of the classrooms on the campus of Aquinas College.

As part of the school’s aggressive goal to become a zero-waste campus by the end of the current school year, the college removed all trash receptacles from its classrooms before classes began last fall.

Instead, the school set up waste stations throughout its 34 buildings that consist of three bins: one each for trash, recycling and compostable materials.

“We realized it was going to be a pretty high cost to move from one trashcan in each classroom to the three-bin system in each classroom,” said Jessica Eimer, Aquinas’ director of sustainability, of the decision to remove the trashcans entirely.

Eimer said the approach definitely made some people uneasy at first. The biggest concern was that students and faculty would leave trash behind in the classrooms rather than search out the bins in the hallways. But one month in, Eimer said, the housekeeping staff reported the three-bin system was working and actually cutting down on their work.

To help everyone adapt to the new system, signage was placed in the classrooms letting students and faculty know where to find waste stations in the building.

“We have worked so hard to instill it into the culture, and it doesn’t take long for a habit to develop,” Eimer said.

Like many schools across the nation, Aquinas has signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a pledge to address higher education’s impact on climate change.

“Once you make that commitment, you have to set a goal for climate neutrality — which we set for 2040 — and then you have to come up with a plan for how you’re going to get there,” Eimer said.

In 2008, the school set a zero-waste goal as part of its climate action plan, aiming for 2020, but student interest helped move that timeline up.

“Our student club, Students Striving for Sustainability, in 2012 decided they really wanted to focus on waste, and they thought the 2020 goal was a little too far out,” Eimer said.

The club members thought a goal that far out would have difficulty gaining momentum among students. The club received permission from Aquinas President Juan Olivarezto change the zero waste goal to 2014.

“When the goal was moved in 2012, we were at about a 45 percent diversion rate,” Eimer said.

Two years later, the campus has achieved an 80 percent diversion rate.

In order to earn the “zero-waste campus” moniker, the school needs to achieve a 90 percent diversion rate.

“The industry-accepted definition of zero waste is a 90 percent diversion rate, which is set by the Zero Waste International Alliance,” Eimer said. “The reason is, there are some items there are no alternatives for, such as gloves required for food service. There is no recyclable or compostable option for those, so you can’t get around it.”

Eimer said packaging materials also present a challenge as the industry has not caught up with sustainability initiatives.

The college’s zero-waste journey is paying off.

“Our actual waste disposal cost went down about $2,000 a month with the progress we’ve made so far since 2012,” Eimer said. “The reason is because recycling and composting is generally cheaper than incinerator or landfill disposal.”

She said even though the college had to pay for additional bins for the waste stations around campus, it saved money by removing trashcans from classrooms and on trashcan liners.

The school also has focused on generating less waste to begin with. Some methods it has employed are encouraging the use of reusable water bottles and educating students on the impact of their purchasing habits.

This past fall, the school also began including sustainability and zero-waste information in its orientation for new students.

“I spent an entire evening with our students, and we did a zero-waste relay on our soccer field, where students were given a bag of trash to sort through,” Eimer said.

The school also did a “Mount Trashmore” event in the fall, which consisted of piling all the waste from one day in the school’s commons area to provide a visual of how much waste is generated in just a single day on campus.

“Waste is such an important thing, and it’s a really tangible way to engage the community in sustainability efforts because it’s an activity that we all have in common,” Eimer said.

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