Based on its current trajectory, UCLA will not be a zero-waste campus by 2020

by Vito Emanuel

UCLA is unlikely to reach its goal of producing zero waste by 2020.

The initiative has been dogged by internal and external stumbling blocks, slowing progress toward zero waste despite many measures to reform its own goals and offset the damage done by unexpected changes in the recycling industry.

Out of the total 19,856 tons of waste UCLA produced in the 2018 fiscal year, the university diverted 11,330 tons from landfills, falling short of University of California zero waste benchmarks by 6,540 tons. The UC currently defines zero waste as 90% waste diversion from landfills, excluding health buildings.

As the 2020 deadline approaches, UCLA’s diversion rate has fallen to 57% this year.

Although the original 2020 goal was ambitious, university staff and faculty working on the zero waste initiative believed it was nevertheless an achievable policy target until major unanticipated barriers slowed progress, said Nurit Katz, UCLA’s chief sustainability officer.

“Turmoil in the international recycling markets and the limitations of local waste haulers have slowed our ability to achieve higher diversion rates,” Katz said. “None of the UC campuses will likely hit our goal to divert 90% of our waste by 2020.”

Julia Stein, the project director for the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law, said the United States exports most of its recyclables to China and other Southeast Asian countries.

But in 2018, China adopted the National Sword policy, which effectively banned foreign-imported recyclables. The change left the U.S. paralyzed by its own domestic recycling infrastructure and overburdened by the unprecedented amount of waste it was newly responsible for.

“The waste management industry here in the United States is in a bit of a bind because it's collecting all the waste but there's nowhere for it to go,” Stein said. “We can’t send it overseas anymore and we don’t have the infrastructure.”

Stein added that she believes the new changes in the recycling market have damaged public confidence in recycling infrastructure at large.

“We can’t have good confidence that when we put (waste) in the blue bin (it’s) actually going to be recycled,” Stein said.

Sorters remove nonrecyclables and potentially hazardous materials from the stream.

While the international recycling market is an external barrier to progress, Kikei Wong, UCLA’s zero waste coordinator, said internal difficulties on campus have also hampered progress.

She said disseminating information about waste sorting to students is difficult and has been a consistent stumbling block for initiatives looking to gain traction.

“It remains a big challenge to engage people and inform people on campus of how to sort their waste,” Wong said. “With a daily population of 80,000, communication is a constant challenge.”

Student organizations said additional internal hurdles for zero waste existed in both policies and daily procedures.

Sithara Menon, the chapter chair of California Public Interest Research Group at UCLA and a third-year biology student, said she thinks the zero waste initiative could have been more effective on campus if the initiative aimed to reduce waste rather than to divert it.

“The best way to address these kinds of issues is not (by) reforming our recycling system or doing more cleanups,” Menon said. “Don’t produce the things you don’t need.”

Ryan Bell, associate director of sustainability at the UC Office of the President, said the University is already working on similar waste-reducing policies to implement beyond 2020.

The process for recommending revisions to system-wide policies within UCOP is demanding. The intercampus Zero Waste Working Group, one of ten policy groups that can propose UC legislation, is currently revising zero waste goals in view of the impending deadline, Bell said. The Systemwide Steering Committee, which meets annually to consider new policy proposals, then has the authority to affirm or deny the working group’s proposal once it’s complete, he added.

The legislation, while not yet finalized, will seek to make waste reduction a priority over other forms of waste management, such as reusing and recycling.

“This is a more holistic approach to looking at waste and tracking progress,” Bell said.

Still, if the legislation is approved it would come after 2020 and long after the deadline for zero waste has passed.

A magnet separates metals from other recyclables.

Emily Davis, the co-chair of the zero waste campaign in E3: Ecology, Economy, Equity – a student environmental group – and a third-year biology student, said her organization is often strangled by other restrictive university policies.

E3 is the largest student environmental organization at UCLA whose mission is to foster a culture of sustainability on campus, according to its website. However, like many student organizations, E3 relies on grant funding, which requires university approval to be spent on sustainable campus events.

Davis said E3 has proposed to buy products from sustainable companies but UCLA’s Student Organizations, Leadership & Engagement office declined to purchase items that were not sold by companies affiliated with UCLA.

Student organizations that want to host sustainable events can apply for funding through the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative grant. However, the HCI grant money can only be used to buy products from vendors approved to contract with UCLA, and oftentimes those vendors offer few sustainable products or none at all.

“We were finally able to find metal straws from Office Depot, one of the few (approved) food vendors, but they all come individually wrapped in plastic,” Davis said. “In a perfect world we would get bulk (products) at one of the many bulk stores in Los Angeles, but we’re forced to buy packaged.”

Davis added that she thinks it is difficult to understand UCLA’s plans for promoting sustainability when the university makes it hard for student organizations to make sustainable choices.

“UCLA owes us an explanation,” Davis said.

Staff members working on zero waste said the problems the initiative experienced are similar to problems experienced by any large organization.

Katz said there were both minor organizational problems, like updating signage and infrastructure, and more substantive challenges, like engagement and communication.

“With a constantly turning over population of busy students and staff it is hard to get the word out and teach people to sort and encourage and nudge those daily choices, like bringing reusable bottles or mugs,” Katz said.

Although it is unclear when the UCLA and the UC will hit zero waste, Katz said she believes achieving the goal remains a matter of collective action.

“For UC and UCLA to succeed in zero waste we need everyone’s participation: faculty, staff and students,” Katz said.