Student team improves library waste diversion through education, bin installation

by Andrew Warner

There are officially two zero-waste buildings on campus. But with the 2020 deadline for the University of California-wide Zero Waste initiative fast approaching, most other buildings on campus lag behind.

To gain insight on how buildings on campus can more effectively strive toward zero waste, a team of student researchers focused their efforts on one particular building on campus: the Charles E. Young Research Library.

During the course of the winter and spring quarters of 2019, a group of five student researchers from the Sustainable Action Research Zero Waste Team worked to develop a waste pilot program for Young Research Library. Their project aimed to prevent the library’s recyclable and compostable waste from being sent to landfills by installing a more streamlined disposal system and creating awareness through educational efforts.

Kate Zeile, a third-year environmental science student and Zero Waste Team member, said Kikei Wong, UCLA's Zero Waste coordinator, suggested they focus their research on the library because during a waste audit conducted in December 2018 the university found that a disproportionately large amount of divertible waste – waste that could be composted or recycled – was being sent to landfills from Young Research Library.

“If we made a difference there, then we could emulate the same practices elsewhere, so that’s kind of why we settled on that – it was manageable within two months and it could be repeated with other buildings,” Zeile said.

Over the course of two quarters, the student-led team worked to install compost and recycling bins in the library, while also tabling for three weeks during spring quarter to engage with students and other library users on how to sort out their waste into the proper bins.

Before the team of students began their project, Wong conducted a waste audit on Young Research Library during December 2018. Wong said the auditors weighed out nearly 600 pounds of waste going to landfill in one day and found that around 85% of the waste could have been composted or recycled.

However, there were no compost bins in the library for accessible use. Zeile said the project aimed to address this problem.

Prior to installing the new bins, the team members conducted an initial waste audit on the building during week seven of winter quarter. According to the report, they selected this point in the quarter so that the library would have moderate traffic from midterm season, but not the abnormally high amount of traffic that occurs during finals week.

During a waste audit, workers generally take a day’s worth of waste from landfill bins, recycling bins or composting bins and re-sort the components according to what waste stream they actually correspond to.

Athens Services, which has served as UCLA’s waste hauler service since 2007, has conducted various large-scale audits of the campus’ waste stream, taking multiple days to sort up to 10 tons of waste, said Jennifer Cilloniz, the organics program manager at Athens Services.

The SAR Zero Waste Team’s Young Research Library audits took place on a much smaller scale, since they were only sorting out waste from one building on campus. Natasha Oviedo, an alumna who served as one of the team’s leaders, said it took about seven hours to sort through 500 pounds of waste going to landfill.

Wong said the results of the Zero Waste Team’s first audit were largely in line with what she found in the December 2018 audit. The students found that 78.7%, or roughly 395 pounds, should have been diverted to a composting center or recycling facility. More than half of the waste was compostable, and 22.2% could have been recycled, according to the report.

After conducting the audit, the students installed 15 compost bins and 15 recycling bins in the library, as well as 40 tri-stream waste bins, which featured three separate compartments for landfill waste, compostable waste and recyclable waste.

Zeile said the team chose to place the new composting, recycling and tri-waste stream bins near trash cans that were already in the library, as well as areas it suspected would see high levels of foot traffic, such as near elevators, hallways and entrances to different rooms.

After installing the bins, the team tabled for three weeks during the spring quarter, teaching people how to sort their waste into the proper bins through flyers and various educational games, Zeile said.

“People were kind of shocked because it’s really challenging to sort waste, unfortunately,” she said. “That’s one of the difficulties, how do you get people to understand all of the intricacies of it?”

Following the bin installation and tabling process, the team conducted a second waste audit during week eight of spring quarter to assess the effectiveness of the pilot project.

They sorted out only 295 pounds from the landfill bins, far less than the 500 pounds they sorted the quarter prior. In addition, they found that less divertible waste was being sent to landfill. This time, 67.6% of landfill waste was either recyclable or compostable – about an 11% drop from the first audit.

The team also found the new compost bins helped divert 210 pounds of waste, according to the report.

“That was a huge difference because ... if we didn’t have compost bins, then all of that would have been going to landfill,” Zeile said.

While conducting the waste audits, Oviedo said one issue with the compostable or recyclable waste being sent to landfills was that much of the waste came from off-campus, such as plastic food containers from restaurants and cafes. She added that sorting this waste can be challenging for consumers because different businesses might sell similar products but package or serve them in slightly different materials.

“I think that stuff (from) off-campus ... was kind of confusing (to sort), especially when you have a coffee cup from Starbucks that isn’t necessarily all the same materials as a coffee cup from Peet’s Coffee and a compostable coffee cup from the (Associated Students UCLA) cafes,” Oviedo said.

The team also found a large amount of compostable waste being sent to landfill came from Cafe 451, the coffee shop inside Young Research Library, according to the report. Oviedo said much of this divertible waste was produced behind the counter and not properly disposed of by workers, such as coffee grounds that could have been composted.

Zeile said she believes the implementation of the bins had a bigger impact than the educational aspect of their project. As a result, she thinks installing more bins with prominent instructional signage would be particularly helpful to expanding upon the results of the Young Research Library pilot program across other buildings on campus.

Looking forward, Zeile said UCLA seems to have much of the proper infrastructure needed to reach its zero-waste goals, but it ultimately comes down to individuals sorting their waste properly, which will require a larger educational campaign.

“UCLA can only do so much as a university,” Zeile said. “Ultimately, it all comes down to the individuals making the decision to sort their waste, and (it) is incredibly difficult to influence other people’s decisions.”

Oviedo said she thinks the UC needs to shoot for systemic progress to complement the work of students.

“If there are going to be changes around the campus it has to be more than just students,” Oviedo said.

Email Warner at [email protected] or tweet @awarner_db.