Trash or Treasure: University of Chicago conducts a comprehensive waste audit

Winter 2013

Near the end of the fall quarter, the University partnered with Waste Management to conduct a campus-wide waste assessment. We sorted and analyzed almost 2,000 pounds (one ton!) of solid waste collected from nearly 40 buildings across campus including libraries, labs, offices and residence halls.

Our main goal with this study was to assess how much recycling was being improperly thrown into the trash. We found that the UChicago community discards approximately 6 tons of solid waste every day and that almost half of that waste can actually be recycled.

We also wanted to gain a better understanding of whether appropriate recycling receptacles are located in each building. This study pointed out the importance of consistent recycling receptacles and signage around campus.

Students, staff, and faculty played an important role, participating in focus groups to give their feedback about recycling policies and practices on campus and to help us better understand the existing barriers to recycling.

What are we throwing out? Results of the audit

Almost half of the 6 tons of solid waste that we throw out daily is comprised of plastic water bottles, pieces of paper, and other materials that can actually be diverted. In other words, by composting and recycling 100% of our divertible material, we could cut our waste in half.

So, what next?

The Office of Sustainability will be using the findings from Waste Management's assessment to expand recycling signage and educational efforts around recycling on-campus. In the near future, we plan to install new recycling receptacles in several high-traffic areas around campus. We will keep you posted on any other actions that we take.

This study will also help us establish a baseline for our waste and recycling streams and create new diversion rates for waste and recycling as part of our Strategic Sustainability Plan.

What can I do?
The SAGE Waste and Recycling committee is working on improving recycling efforts at UChicago. If you would like to get involved in this effort, please email Zach Felsenstein, chair of the committee.