Waste not, want not

Feb. 16, 2010, 1:03 a.m.

The recent installation of compost bins at some campus eateries and lessons in a new civil and environmental engineering class may signal a change in the way Stanford manages waste.

Union Square, The Axe & Palm and Russo Cafe became billed as “waste-free” last week; through the combined efforts of Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS) and Stanford Hospitality and Auxiliaries, the eateries agreed to use only compostable or recyclable materials and were equipped with bins to dispose of these items.

Meanwhile, a new course on campus sustainability has students analyzing the impact of waste at places like Tresidder’s Union Square, where hundreds of students eat daily.

This concerted effort raises questions about how the University as a whole as has fared in matters of waste disposal.

Julie Muir, director of Stanford’s Recycling Program, has sifted through the University’s rubbish for 16 years to better understand its waste patterns.

“I do not really need to sort trash myself [at this point],” she said.

But Muir headed to the bins once again this quarter while working with students in “Creating a Green Student Workforce to Help Implement Stanford’s Sustainability Vision,” a new class that teaches students about campus sustainability.

The class focuses on facets of sustainability like waste management, green buildings and water and energy conservation that are integral to reducing waste at Stanford.

“I think people’s minds are opened when they see what we’re throwing away,” Muir said. “You don’t think about it once it goes in the trash can, but this brings it right back up to you.”

Muir oversees a recycling program that uses more than 4,000 bins on campus to divert 65 percent of waste away from the landfill, but she said this system depends entirely on the cooperation of its users.

“Twenty percent of what we send to the landfill is bottles and cans and paper,” Muir said. “That could be handled today, with no new programs and no extra dollars — just Joe Citizen and Julie Citizen putting the right thing in the right bin.”

The same problem occurred when another set of compost bins were installed in Tresidder several years ago. The receptacles were regularly contaminated with non-compostable material, forcing the University to pay a fine. The bins were eventually removed.

Leah Kuritzky ’10, a SSS outreach coordinator who spearheaded the latest installation, believes that the outcome will be different this time. Students have adorned the bins with signs and members of SSS plan to help customers sort their refuse during the program’s fledgling weeks.

“I think going toward zero waste in the unions is going to be successful,” Kuritzky said. “It’s just a matter of getting over the first hump and letting people know that the alternatives are there.”

“We can literally recycle materials into new products, and that diverts the need to find new natural resources,” added Noel Crisostomo ’10, an SSS outreach coordinator and teaching assistant for the course. “Educating others about those little-known benefits of waste diversion is empowering.”

Jeff Koseff, a civil and environmental engineering professor who oversees the class, agrees.

“To me, it’s a great way to bridge the academic and operational divide and bring the passion and the interest of the students to play in a very productive way,” Koseff said.

Despite these developments, Stanford has a long way to go in order to eliminate waste entirely. Instructor Fahmida Ahmed recognizes that scaling these programs to the University level quickly will be a challenge. Ahmed co-teaches the course and is the associate director of sustainability and energy management within the Office of Sustainability.

“How do we — 10 people, 15 people or even 90 people — serve a campus of 35,000 and change their behavior in a reasonably short period of time?” Ahmed said. “I’m very cautiously optimistic.”

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