Harvey Mudd College’s Path to Zero Waste

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

As the Hixon Center, Facilities & Maintenance, and Dining Services move ahead with plans to improve waste diversion on campus, and while a new dehydrator and additional waste and recycling bins are a step forward, more is needed to create lasting change.

Some of you may recall the announcement we made this past February, announcing that composting would be coming to the Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons and campus residence halls in the spring. The announcement came off the heels of an organic waste collection program by the City of Claremont that would allow local businesses and organizations to have their organic waste hauled off and composted off-site.

Sadly, the roll-out of the plan was delayed – and while the college took steps to introduce waste sorting for both customers and kitchen staff at the Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons, we were unable to compost any of our food waste.

However, as the summer concludes and fall approaches, the Hixon Center, Facilities & Maintenance, and Dining Services are moving forward on a collaborative effort to follow through on this plan. By the time students return to campus for the fall semester, the institution will have the means to properly handle its compost, and improve waste-sorting wholesale across campus. A dehydrator has been installed in the dining commons so that some of the organic waste can be composted on-site and consequently used for landscaping on campus. The rest of the campus’ food waste, for the short-term, will be hauled off by the City of Claremont until our campus hopefully has the means to handle the entirety of Harvey Mudd’s food waste. You should start to notice new bins across campus and in kitchens and break-rooms, accompanied by signage with clear instructions on what goes in each bin.

Each of these steps signals significant progress on behalf of the college towards zero waste (meaning that nothing goes to the landfill), but these steps alone only take us a part of the way there.

We must choose to reduce our waste, not just sort it correctly.

Proper waste sorting and diversion is a big step, no doubt. After all, as per our sampled waste audit in April 2016, nearly 86% of our waste (by weight) can be diverted from landfills, which is significant. If every member of the campus community was diligent about sorting waste, this diversion rate is well within reach.

However, the waste audit evaluated approximately 620 lbs. of trash, which accounts for a day’s waste from only some of the buildings on campus. A simple estimate suggests we could be producing anywhere between 700-1000 lbs. of waste each day. This requires us not just to think about sorting as a means to an end – but instead, we have to think about how much we are actually throwing away. Our consumption choices are a big part of the problem, but as a result, can also be a part of the solution.

Every time we make a purchase, or eat something, we are making a choice that has ecological and environmental impacts. Think of the things you might use in your everyday life: disposable cups, thin plastics like straws and flimsy take-out boxes, plastic bags, to name a few. Most of these items are too expensive, costly, or just are not possible to recycle – meaning they end up in a landfill. As waste decomposes in landfills, methane is emitted – a highly potent greenhouse gas (about 25x more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period). And consequently, landfills are the third largest contributor to U.S. methane emissions.

Some of our waste ends up in the natural environment – on beaches, in oceans, for instance – where it can threaten and harm wildlife. A recently developing campaign over plastic straws, for instance, signals how serious of a problem this is. Like a variety of other plastics, straws can take hundreds of years to properly decompose in any setting. You can extrapolate from this that no plastic we’ve ever made has so far completely biodegraded. And while the state of California has banned retailers from offering single-use plastic bags at checkout for customers, things like straws and other take-out containers are fairly ubiquitous – even on our own campus.

If everyone at Harvey Mudd College made it a point to move away from disposable items that can’t be recycled, this would decrease total waste output and improve our diversion rates. We can actively keep things out of landfills, and it starts by asking ourselves first, “Do I need that straw?” or “Can I bring my own reusable bag?”

We have to tackle the supply side.

Much like we can make choices about what we consume, institutions like Harvey Mudd College can make choices about what they purchase, or don’t purchase. This has a lot to do with the choices we make with on-campus purchases and consumption, because part of the problem is that environmentally unfavorable options are available (or too overtly so).

Take plastic water bottles for instance – a keystone example in institutional decision-making at colleges and universities across the country. In case you hadn’t heard, plastic bottles aren’t particularly great for the environment. While some people believe that bottled water is safer, or even tastes better, there isn’t too much of a difference in taste or safety. Much of the water you get in bottled water actually comes from municipal sources, like tap water does. In certain instances, bottled water doesn’t undergo the same strict regulation that tap water does, which has in some cases meant that bottled water can be contaminated. On the environmental side, bottles are serious greenhouse gas emitters from cradle to grave – from the creation of plastic, to their distribution around the world, and oftentimes to the landfill (if they are not properly recycled). We don’t run into this problem with tap water, filtered or otherwise.

So, if we have the option of safe tap water, why do we have bottled water on our campuses? Since the late 2000s, students on college campuses around the country have taken action on reducing or eliminating bottled water sales on campus. We could try to do the same thing with bottled water and perhaps even other items. Obviously, these are not simple decisions for campus vendors and services – because demand and prices are huge considerations in deciding what we sell on campus – but it is something we must seriously consider.

With that said, the path to zero waste requires us to heavily consider the supply side – and it’s something that the campus has started working on already. One component of the Hixon Center’s Green Office Program is encouraging and helping offices and departments across campus to think about what they purchase, and where they can cut down on waste in their day-to-day operations. Some offices have chosen to stop making plastic water bottles available to visitors, only providing them upon explicit request – and instead offer tap water in a glass. It’s an easy but impactful choice, and shows how small supply decisions can have a large impact – and ultimately reduce our waste output to landfill and recycling streams.

We must keep it in mind.

None of this is possible without adopting a mindset of ecological awareness. The thread that runs through consumer and supplier choices is that each have to make conscious and impactful choices about what they are buying or choosing to sell. If the Harvey Mudd College community is to move ahead on the path to zero waste and more seriously tackle larger sustainability challenges, we have to both institutionalize and personally adopt and prioritize principles of sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. The vast range of environmental issues we face, such as climate change, natural resource depletion, water scarcity, and so forth are not always hitting us in the face. When we throw something away, we are not at the landfill to receive it and see what happens. The consequences of our decisions aren’t immediate or at times even apparent, which is one of the many reasons why environmental issues don’t always come up when we think about the world’s pressing problems. Even for the most avid of environmentalists, stewardship starts as a task before it becomes a responsibility – requiring us to actively engage with these issues as much as possible.

Where does one begin?

We have to seriously commit ourselves to zero waste, and to larger goals of carbon neutrality, if we are to have any shot of achieving those goals. While we hope to make the choice easy for Mudders this fall when they arrive to the bin with trash to throw away, there are more impactful – albeit more challenging – choices we all have to make that keep us from having to toss something away in the first place.

So, as we are wont to do here at the Hixon Center, here are some simple tips to start living a zero-waste lifestyle:

  • Avoid purchasing or using thin plastics (e.g., straws, plastic bags, disposable food containers and utensils, etc.)
  • Shop local and second-hand – move away from Amazon and look for local retailers and second-hand stores to reduce waste from packaging
  • Go reusable – bring reusable utensils, food containers, bags, canteens, and/or mugs wherever you may need them.

If you have questions about Harvey Mudd College’s zero-waste endeavors, or about the Hixon Center, please contact us at hixoncenter@hmc.edu.