How the University of California set its sights on achieving zero waste by 2020

by Sara Hubbard

Reminders of the University of California’s goal of zero waste by 2020 can be found on nearly every trash can and paper towel dispenser on campus.

Most students see these signs every day, but what goes unseen is the history that precedes and continues to influence this goal that was set nearly 13 years ago by the UC Office of the President.

Then-UC President Robert C. Dynes signed off on several expanded sustainability goals in the March 2007 revision of the UC’s Policy on Sustainable Practices, including a new section detailing waste management benchmarks culminating in zero waste by 2020.

In the beginning, the goal was set in response to state legislation that similarly aimed to reduce waste in state agencies. Though the goal was in place, what “zero waste” actually meant for the UC went undefined for some time and, once it was given a definition, it fluctuated throughout the years before being set at 90% diversion of waste from landfills by the year 2020.

Sustainability administrators today said the goal was ambitious and created in part to establish the UC as an environmentally conscious system.

Dynes declined to comment on how and why the 2020 goal was established.

Nurit Katz, UCLA’s first chief sustainability officer, said the goal represents the UC’s commitment to setting a high standard for other universities to follow.

“(The zero-waste goals) were set because (the) UC has a responsibility to lead as a public institution of higher education and to manage our resources in a sustainable and responsible way,” Katz wrote in an emailed statement.

According to the 2007 policy, this goal was created in response to the California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, which stipulates waste-reduction criteria for state agencies.

In particular, a 1999 addition to the act required state agencies to create waste-management plans with the intention of achieving 50% waste diversion by 2004.

The UC, however, is not considered to be a state agency under the Public Resources Code 40196.3 guidelines. Consequently, unlike the California Community Colleges and California State University, the UC was only encouraged – not required – to take up the zero-waste campaign.

Eight years following this encouragement, the UC decided to take action in the 2007 policy.

Ryan Bell, the UCOP associate director of sustainability, said legislation like the CIWMA showed a push to cut waste at the state level, even if the UC was not explicitly mandated to do so.

A sustainable practices report has been published annually since 2004 by the UCOP. However, the 2007 zero-waste goal was the first major policy move made by the UC that represented an effort by the University to keep up with the state, Bell said.

Despite the eight-year disparity between the 1999 addition to the CIWMA and the UC’s plan, Katz said she thinks the University’s initiative was ahead of the state Legislature because the UC adopted a more aggressive waste diversion timeline than the state.

The UC implementation timeline originally planned to hit 50% and 75% waste diversion after one and five years, respectively. The state, on the other hand, aimed for 25% and 50% after three and five years, respectively.

While interim goals were set in 2007, the UC did not specify what qualified as “zero waste” until a policy update in 2017.

“Zero waste,” as defined by the UC in 2017, actually refers to 90% diversion of waste from landfills – it does not mean the UC will generate no waste. Instead, 90% of waste will end up somewhere other than a landfill through means such as recycling or composting.

The UC’s definition of zero waste shifted between 2007 and 2017, Katz said. The diversion percentage goal went undefined for some time, then was set at 95% in 2014 and was finally lowered to 90% in 2017. Katz added that the shift from 95% to 90% was enacted to align the UC’s goals with those of the Zero Waste International Alliance, an organization that aims to promote and set standards for zero-waste practices.

Lily Shaw, the Undergraduate Students Association Council facilities commissioner, offered a different explanation for why the University has modified the goals.

“UCLA will change the definition of waste to make it fit how we currently are doing,” Shaw said. “They will change the definition of waste to limit the scope to match our progress.”

As for why the year 2020 was chosen, Katz said it was selected because at the time the goals were set, UCOP saw 2020 as being far enough in the future to allow the UC to meet its goals.

Bell said he thinks 2020 aligned well with state goals, particularly those spelled out in Assembly Bill No. 341, which expands upon the CIWMA by requiring state agencies to reach 75% waste diversion by 2020.

“Generally what we try to do is follow along with (what) local governments and the state is doing,” Bell said.

Bell added that the UC and its campuses operate more like a city than state agencies do, so its goals were bound to end up being different from state requirements for state agencies, which are more focused on state agency- and office-specific goals.

As 2020 approaches, it is becoming increasingly clear that some UC campuses fared better than others in meeting the zero-waste goals.

Katz said the goals were seen as ambitious but achievable when they were first set, and they were created to send a message that the UC is open to pursuing waste-reduction measures.

“They were aspirational goals, set to start the conversation on campuses about how to manage our waste and promote recycling and composting,” Katz added.

Shaw, on the other hand, said the UC should treat the goals as mandatory targets.

“We should never look at sustainability as a reach, it should be a requirement,” she said. “Not enough people are thinking about the bigger picture of how this impacts our planet. ... So we should never look at this as an aspirational thing.”