Reducing consumer trash to landfills a challenge at Cal Poly

Nov 15, 2017

Over the past two years, Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo has been working to develop a comprehensive Zero Waste program. Cal Poly has been acting under state mandates and California State University system policy to improve the consumer waste diversion rate - or the amount of consumer trash that goes to the local landfill.  

The goal with these policies is to divert 80 percent of current landfill waste to recycle or compost by 2020. Cal Poly has consistently diverted over 50 percent of its total waste, hitting over 90 percent diversion in 2016, by implementing numerous management programs. However, Cal Poly’s consumer waste stream has proven to be the most challenging to manage, with only around 20 percent of it regularly diverted.

In an effort to improve recycling and composting rates and achieve this 2020 goal, Cal Poly has phased in Zero Waste Stations. These are divided bins that allow consumers to sort their trash into compost, recycle, and landfill.

Amara Cairns, president of Cal Poly's Zero Waste Club, appreciates the progress the university is making with waste diversion. However, she is concerned that the students are not using the new resources to their full potential.

“In terms of progress, those did start the conversation about zero waste and composting. But it has been an uphill battle trying to get that ingrained in the culture here,” Cairns said.

The stations have graphics displaying the kinds of waste appropriate for each bin. Many students find these images helpful in making conscious decisions about their trash. But Joseph Schutz, a Cal Poly student, cares less about sorting his waste into the bins.

“When I’m throwing my stuff away, I’m just done with it. I don’t want to spend any more time on it. I just want it out of my life, out of my hands,” Schutz said.

This type of consumer attitude leads to the contamination of each bin, making sorting the waste even more challenging. Dennis Elliot, Cal Poly’s Director of Energy, Utilities, and Sustainability said there is not yet a clear solution to this issue, but the university is working on shifting perception.

“We have to educate people when they come to Cal Poly. So that’s why we try to do zero waste at Open House because we’re trying to expose them to it before they even live here," Elliot said. "It’s a part of [Residential] Life Programming for the freshman halls to start educating. And it’s an imperfect system. We’re working on trying to improve it."

Elliot said he considers the program successful over the years, with the most recent data showing 27 percent consumer waste diversion in 2016.