UC's 2020 zero waste goals land in the trash as no campus is projected to meet them

by Shelby Dunagan and Jun Ma

Of the 10 University of California campuses, officials predict zero will meet the zero-waste goals by 2020.

Despite UC Irvine, UC San Francisco and UC Davis achieving the highest waste diversion rates, they are still unlikely to reach 90% municipal solid waste diversion from landfills by 2020. Municipal solid waste does not include construction and demolition waste.

UCLA is in the middle of the pack, said UCLA's chief sustainability officer Nurit Katz in an emailed statement.

Katz said there are many factors that contribute to UCLA's expected failure to reach the 90% diversion rate by 2020.

“Various internal and external barriers, including turmoil in the international recycling markets and the limitations of local waste haulers, have slowed our ability to achieve higher diversion rates,” Katz said in the statement.

UCLA was at 63% waste diversion for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, according to Katz. The diversion rate for 2018-2019 fiscal year fell to 57%.

The bales, which are conglomerated stacks of sorted recyclables, are transported out of the facility and sold to buyers.

UC Irvine, though still falling short of the zero waste goals, is the closest of all 10 campuses. It is projected to reach roughly 80% diversion by 2020, said Anne Krieghoff, UC Irvine’s solid waste and recycling program coordinator, in an emailed statement.

Krieghoff said in the statement that all UC schools collaborate in a group called the Zero Waste Working Group, in which team members from all 10 campuses talk on a conference call monthly and meet annually in an attempt to keep the zero waste definition and policies consistent across campuses.

Despite the group’s efforts, each campus has made varying progress toward meeting these goals.

UC Irvine continues to achieve the highest waste diversion rate and has been ranked highly in college sustainability indexes.

Krieghoff attributed the better outcome to the campus’s early adoption of consistent signage, bin color and messaging, which make for easy identification of the correct bin for recyclable, compostable and landfill deposits.

UCLA has struggled to communicate correct bin usage to its community, Katz said.

Lily Shaw, Undergraduate Students Association Council Facilities commissioner, said signage about different categories of waste at UCLA is not always easy to understand.

“I'm sure you've seen, staff on the Hill have to sort because no one knows which containers from the dining halls are compostable, which ones are recyclable, which ones are garbage,” Shaw said.

Much of UCLA’s recyclable or compostable material then becomes contaminated with landfill material and ends up in landfills, Shaw said.

Krieghoff also said UC Irvine’s two most sweeping successful changes have been removing organics from landfills and focusing on teaching waste minimization schoolwide. According to Krieghoff, these initiatives have contributed to reducing UC Irvine’s total annual waste material from 720 pounds per person in 2011 to 547 pounds per person in 2018.

“Waste minimization is the concept of prioritizing ‘reduce and reuse.’ ... This concept is something we teach at every UCI Zero Waste event,” Krieghoff said. “It has reduced the amount per (student) at UCI for the past seven years.”

UC Davis is not far behind UCI with a reported diversion rate of 74%.

Sue Vang, UC Davis’ zero waste program manager, said in an emailed statement that UC Davis’ better outcome is because of the partnership between the UC Davis Office of Sustainability and various on-campus entities, which creates an overall culture of proper waste management.

UC Davis Student Housing and Dining Services takes an active role in educating first-year residents about educational waste audits, reusable cup discounts and compostable foodservice ware, Vang said in the statement.

Vang added UC Davis’ high diversion rate is because of the generation of large sums of agriculture-related waste, such as manure and animal bedding, which is composted directly.

Overall, the UC Office of the President reports 69% of campus waste inclusive of construction and demolition waste was diverted from landfills in 2017-18.

Katz said UCOP has adapted their goals going forward to take into account the challenges that each campus seems to be facing.

“Recognizing these challenges, the UC system has expanded (its) goals and adopted per capita waste minimization goals in addition to waste diversion,” Katz said. “This approach better supports our efforts to reduce, reuse, recycle and compost.”