More bins, better labels can improve waste diversion at York

What should York do to reduce waste on campus? Lots of things, but students, staff and faculty surveyed last December say the University should focus on three diversion measures – placing more composters closer to dining areas, introducing electronic course kits and other paperless practices, and encouraging food vendors to use recyclable dishes and cutlery.

About 70 per cent of the 569 who completed the survey also admitted they are confused about what is recyclable at York.

“York does manage its own waste, so what is recyclable at York isn’t necessarily recyclable at home,” said Alexis Esseltine, the environmental studies graduate student who conducted the survey, at an Earth Hour Symposium at Keele campus last Wednesday. “This may be causing confusion.”

Right: Marlee Kohn (left) and Alexis Esseltine demonstrate proper garbage disposal

A recycling contest in Vari Hall last week underlined that fact. Participants were timed for how fast they could empty 40 items from a bag into the correct recycling and garbage bins. Many mistakenly placed aluminum foil in with bottles and cans, and didn’t know batteries could be recycled in drop-offs around campus, said Marlee Kohn, an environmental studies master’s student who led the educational Waste Challenge.

The solution? Those surveyed suggested more bins and clearer labels on bins, so people can figure out quickly where to dispose of their waste. They also suggested York should  provide feedback on how well it is reducing and diverting waste, simplify its recycling system and post reminders on how to recycle. 

Esseltine oversaw the survey for the Strategic Waste Elimination Education Project (SWEEP), an initiative of York’s Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS). Every year, IRIS’s graduate assistants do a campus survey on a sustainability theme. The first, in 2006, asked students what they knew about climate change and resulted in more environmentally friendly course kits, now a Yorkwise initiative (see YFile, April 2, 2008); the second, assessed the value of urban forest on Keele campus; and the third surveyed students about their food choices and needs.

The goal of the waste survey was to determine the York community’s attitudes, behaviours, and knowledge surrounding waste. The results will be shared with Campus Services & Business Operations (CSBO) and the President’s Sustainability Council.

Conducted over two weeks late last fall, the survey solicited responses online, through listservs and on Facebook, and for four days on laptops set up at tables in Vari Hall.

More than 60 per cent of the respondents were students, 20 per cent staff and 12 per cent faculty. Almost 90 per cent of all respondents live off campus.

A majority use reusable mugs (60 per cent) and reusable water bottles (70 per cent) and bring their own meals and snacks in reusable containers with cutlery (70 per cent). Most (80 per cent) turn off lights when leaving a room.

Just over half said they were aware of the black outdoor composters on campus. Of those who were, only 35 per cent used them. The other 64 per cent said they never or rarely used them because the composters were not conveniently located or were dirty, or because the respondents weren’t aware the composters were meant for community use. Some respondents said they take their garbage home. “No one thought that they weren’t important,” said Esseltine.

York currently diverts 59 per cent of its waste from landfill. On April 22, CSBO plans to launch Zero Waste, an awareness program to reduce waste and improve the recycling stream, to raise that diversion rate to 65 per cent by May 2013.

Visit the CSBO Web site for more information about York’s recycling program.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer