Individuals’ recycling efforts can help UI reach goals

Photo by Tim Schoon.

The garbage can in Liz Christiansen’s office is about the size of a pop can. It sits on her desk in the Office of Sustainability, of which she is the director, and about every three weeks she takes it to the centrally located waste collection station in University Services Building and empties it.

Though Christiansen admits her wastebasket is a bit small, most of her USB colleagues’ receptacles aren’t much bigger than a coffee can.

Why the tiny trash cans?

USB started a waste reduction pilot program that Christiansen hopes will spread across campus. The aim is to increase recycling visibility and participation by eliminating desk-side collection of waste and recyclables. Instead of everyone in the building having the standard-sized recycling and trash bins in their office, waste collection was moved to a central location on both the second and third floors of USB. Everyone is responsible for taking his or her recyclables and waste to the central location.

“Having a central waste collection location really forces the issue of each person’s choice to produce waste,” Christiansen says. “It puts the responsibility and accountability on each individual to be more thoughtful about what they’re throwing away.”

It’s part of the Office of Sustainability and Facilities Management’s efforts to increase recycling visibility and participation across campus. According to Christiansen and Bill Ciha, manager of custodial services, the central waste collection has dramatically reduced the amount of waste that is being produced in the building. More plastics are being recycled and there is a separate collection for food waste, which is then used for vermicomposting by a couple who work in USB.

“The central location makes you much more conscious of what you’re throwing away,” Ciha says. “It’s amazing how a simple thing can make such a difference.”

Recycling ties into the University’s overall goal of reducing waste production by 60 percent by 2020. According to Ciha, recycling is available in every building on campus, including residence halls, but it really comes down to individual departments and people making it a part of their daily routine.

So, what can you do to be a more sustainable Hawkeye? Christiansen and Ciha offer several tips:

  • Organize a departmental or building waste audit. Waste audits help illustrate how much waste is being produced and identify opportunities for reduction, reuse, and recycling. Facilities Management and the Office of Sustainability coordinate with departments on waste audits. The audits provide the opportunity to take a look at the actual composition of a department or building’s waste stream and plan for future reduction efforts.
  • Host a Lunch and Learn through the Office for Sustainability. During Lunch and Learns, Christiansen talks about sustainability on campus and brings along representatives from City Carton and the City of Iowa City to discuss recycling issues. Attendees are invited to bring with them a particular item that may not be able to be recycled. The group then talks about what makes the items recyclable or nonrecyclable and identifies good substitutions or behaviors.
  • Use reusable products. If your department has regular meetings where disposable serving materials are used, consider investing in durables—china plates, metal utensils, glasses. If you’re using a caterer, ask them to bring napkins that can be laundered. The Office of Sustainability does this for their roundtable meetings, which Christiansen considers zero-waste. She says she contacted Dining Services and spent about $100 on utensils, plates, and cups that weren’t being used anymore. Prior to that purchase, they were spending $25-30 on disposable products. She says the $100 investment has already paid for itself.
  • Familiarize yourself with recycling locations in your building. Both Christiansen and Ciha pointed out that not all recycling containers on campus are the bright blue that many people have come to recognize. As new buildings are constructed and old buildings renovated, recycling is being incorporated into building design and function. Ciha says that if your building or department produces a specific type of waste that may not work with what’s currently available, you can work with Facilities Management to meet your specific needs.
  • Work on hosting green events. When you have an event, you build sustainability into the vendor contract. Consult with the Office of Sustainability on green materials that you can purchase. Before the 2010-11 academic year, the Office of Sustainability invested in containers for events for recyclables and compostables and used them for the president’s block party. More than 80 percent of material that would have gone into landfill was diverted. You can contact the office to borrow containers for event. You also can download information on how to plan sustainable events at
  • Take advantage of University Surplus. Christiansen credited Surplus for its vibrant reuse program, which has expanded from used University equipment to include Hawkeye apparel.
  • Reduce printing and the number of printed materials your office uses. Focus more on developing online resources and publications that can be accessed by anyone from anywhere.

Both Christiansen and Ciha acknowledged that it’s going to take a lot of work to achieve the 2020 goal, but it’s an attainable one.

“We need to raise visibility and awareness of recycling and waste reduction on campus,” Christiansen says. “Every individual needs to make a commitment. If you’re already doing it, model that behavior to your colleagues. Show that there’s a different way of doing things and demonstrate that every day. Point it out to people if you have to.”

Christiansen says that to reach 60 percent waste diversion by 2020, it’s about personal responsibility, much like the central waste station at USB.

“Sixty percent means everybody’s recycling every day. It means we’re thinking ahead about what we buy and what we use and have an entire culture that supports that effort,” she says.

Ciha echoes her sentiments: “It means everyone’s taking ownership in waste reduction—starting right now.”