5 Steps to Develop a Zero Waste Plan on Campus

An Simple Action Plan for any University

The importance of sustainability on campuses worldwide is growing as students, faculty, and the wider public work to mitigate the effects of a changing climate.

While there are many ways you can make your campus more sustainable, one ambitious plan would be to become zero waste. Many global universities are already pursuing such a goal, along with other initiatives to help them become greener and more forward-thinking.

Zero waste has many definitions, but a commonly accepted definition is having a 90% or greater diversion rate across campus. It’s a great way to increase sustainability, decrease waste costs, and work to solve the growing global waste problem. Waste is a problem that affects everyone, so by introducing a zero waste goal, you can make a big impact on your community. If you’re already working toward waste reduction, zero waste is a logical next step, but if you haven’t started reducing your waste, it’s still an achievable goal to consider with a little planning.

Whether you're already part of the office of sustainability, working in operations, or in a campus leadership role, establishing and maintaining a plan is a key part of success. Using these five steps, you can take the plunge and start reducing your waste and becoming more sustainable.

1. Set Up a Well-Rounded Team

Large projects like this are likely to fail without the help of an organised team guiding decision-making at every step of the way. Ideally, a team should have a mix of employees with personal stakes in zero waste, such as operations staff, cleaners, leadership representatives, and representatives from the sustainability committee or office of sustainability, if your campus has one.

While leadership may be keen to get a project off the ground quickly, the cleaning and operations staff can provide realistic expectations and on-the-ground knowledge to help establish a realistic plan. It’s also worth enlisting the help of any student-led sustainability groups, as student buy-in will be vital to the success of a zero waste campaign.

As with any large-scale project on campus, the zero-waste team will need to be prepared to seek approvals for initiatives, implement and report, answer questions from stakeholders, and deal with campus politics that often interfere with projects such as these. Having a well-rounded team with stakeholders from different departments can help make this campaign smoother.

2. Conduct a Thorough Assessment

It will be difficult to set regular targets if you aren’t sure of where you stand. Take the time to conduct thorough waste audits, evaluate waste streams and sources at every point on campus, and understand current waste management processes to help guide an action plan. Without a solid baseline, you won’t be able to accurately measure progress or understand what areas will have the most impact.

Considering the size of any campus, this step may take some time and should be done as thoroughly as possible by addressing every possible waste point on campus – from the student dining hall and classrooms to faculty and support offices. This is also a great opportunity to identify waste champions in different departments who can help guide the campus, as a whole, to success. Put out feelers to faculty and staff, or make even send out a survey to understand how people view waste and recycling.

3. Create an Action Plan

With a major goal like zero waste, it is absolutely critical to have a thorough action plan drawn up that breaks down the overall goal into manageable targets and reflection periods to address barriers that stand in the way. The action plan should have smaller tasks that each team member can initiate and complete in their daily roles with checkpoints to reevaluate the actions as needed. It should also address and plan for budgetary considerations and proposals for getting board approval and grants to help contain the cost of these changes.

This is especially important as it keeps the team on track with the larger goal without getting bogged down in the minutiae of details. It can also be helpful as zero waste goals take years, and during that time, there may be staff turnover which could hinder progress. But having one document that shows the overall roadmap, it can make these challenges easier to overcome.

Boston University has a great zero waste plan as an example, or you can check out the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)’s Zero Waste Campus Toolkit. While this is a US-based organisation, the steps and resources laid out in the toolkit can easily be adapted to universities worldwide.

Some sustainability initiatives that can help reduce waste that you can include in your action plan:

  • Start a campus-wide composting program
  • Install water refill stations throughout campus and encourage people to bring reusable water bottles
  • Engage with campus vendors to standardise packaging type
  • Introduce new recycling streams throughout campus
  • Launch a takeaway container return scheme in campus dining halls and food courts

4. Implement new processes

Once the baseline has been established and a plan with clear initiatives has been laid out, it’s time to work toward implementing the plan. There are many things that can work toward zero waste, so it’s helpful to choose high-impact changes first, to help keep momentum strong. While some of the highest impact changes may require an upfront investment, many of these will have lasting, cost-efficient effects that will be easy to justify to leadership. However, if you cannot currently work within budget constraints, lower-cost initiatives may be easier to get approval. These can include student-led composting programs or introducing new waste streams.

Don’t make all the necessary changes at once as it will be hard to report on, reduce your ability to assess the most effective initiatives, and make them more likely to fail. Also, make sure to implement a new change when you’ll be able to accurately record results, i.e. don’t implement and report in the summertime when there are fewer students on campus.

5. Report and Reflect

After any new changes have been rolled out, establish a timeline for reporting and evaluating that change. New systems and change, in general, can be hard to adapt to, especially when the user base is large and mostly transient, like on a university campus. The evaluation length will depend on the change itself but aim for at least a couple of months of continued use to properly judge how well a system has worked.

Establish guidelines for reporting on each initiative, as they will all have different variables. Some initiatives may do really well, whereas others may struggle to get off the ground. For ones that may fall short of the initial goals, reflect, research, and adjust as needed.

Reporting on waste goals can help determine how much value they bring to a campus and can help leadership see tangible results, which can, in turn, help earn support for future initiatives. This is why it’s important to accurately measure and report on campus-wide waste initiatives.

Wrap Up

Becoming a zero-waste campus doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it requires clear goals, a dedicated team, and a willingness to adjust and try new things in order to get the desired results. There are many initiatives that a campus can undertake to see real, impactful results, but figuring out how to make those changes can be a big challenge. But by establishing a team, creating a clear action plan, implementing changes successively, and reporting on the data, you can be well on your way to a Zero Waste Campus.

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