Trash Radicals: Sustainability’s New Ascetic Ideal

Rachelle Peterson

The NAS has been studying the sustainability movement on college and university campuses. The following article reports on an aspect of that movement.

When students step onto the campus of Arizona State University, they enter a magical world where coffee grounds double as tree fertilizer and Clif bar wrappers turn into “upcycled” backpacks. “Upcycling” isn’t triathlon jargon for biking uphill. It means repurposing trash to create a new product, ideally worth more than its ingredients. Ergo energy bar wrapper backpacks and Oreo packaging kites. But unlike Cinderella’s pumpkin stagecoach, ASU’s transformation is not a spell, and it doesn’t end at midnight. “Waste not, want not” is a long-term institutional policy.

This policy is called “zero waste,” the ideal of wasting very little. “Zero” is an exaggeration. ASU developed a “Zero Waste Roadmap” that announces intentions to “eliminate 90 percent of campus solid waste from the landfill by 2015.” Students and staff have jumped aboard. The idea of interring coffee grounds as landscape fertilizer came from two “sustainability” and horticulture majors.  The Clif bar backpacks come by way of Terracycle, a “trash alchemist” company that brands such as Clif sponsor to find ways of reusing hard-to-recycle products.

ASU is not the only institution watching its waste-line. Aquinas College (Michigan) announced that it “has set a goal for Zero Landfill Status by 2020.” The University of Illinois in 2010 pledged to “adopt a Zero Waste Policy by 2012, to implement a large-scale food composting project by 2012, and to increase the waste diversion rate to 75% by 2020.” San Francisco State University promised to “work toward the goal of effectively producing zero waste by 2020.” And the University of California system as a whole has committed each of its branch institutions to achieving “zero waste” within the next six years:

For the purposes of measuring compliance with UC’s zero waste goal, locations need to meet or exceed 95% diversion of municipal solid waste. Ultimately, UC’s zero waste goal strives for the elimination of all materials sent to the landfill by 2020.

Such administrative policies are fortified with everyday campus reminders that nag students to comply. At Penn State’s Runkle Hall, trash cans bear a placard that asks would-be disposers, “Are you sure?” and nudges them towards the recycling bins instead. If Penn’s silent sign is too passive, a stalwart team of University of California-Riverside “trash talkers” mans the trash bins during campus events, ensuring proper sorting and disposal of compostable and recyclable goods.

If “zero waste” meant simply a return to old-fashioned values of thrift and responsibility, it would provide a rare instance in which the sustainability movement got it right. Pursuing efficient manufacturing and, where feasible, reusing products rather than perpetually buying disposable versions can make good sense. If it’s easy to repurpose industrial byproducts and shop the thrift store, why not do so? But the movement often takes a political, ideological hue that denigrates man’s place in the world and preaches a progressive reimagination of society.

Often the push for zero waste comes from administrators eager to prove their dedication to sustainability. Institutions that signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment have pledged to perform at least three campus-greening tasks. One option is to “Participate in the Waste Minimization component of the national RecycleMania competition, and adopt 3 or more associated measures to reduce waste.” Each year, RecycleMania ranks colleges and universities by their recycling and landfill diversion rates. Last year, the University of Missouri-Kansas City (a signatory of the ACUPCC) won by diverting 86.2% of its trash from the landfill and into thrift stores or recycling and composting centers. 

Sometimes the movement starts with students, as in the case of Oregon State University, whose zero waste program was founded by activist students in 1991. At Humboldt State University, the Associated Students funds WRRAP, the Waste-Reduction & Resource Awareness Program that sponsors zero waste events. (WRRAP holds religiously to the jot and tittle of its zero waste vow: It recommends that the trash-savvy student who finds himself at an event with forbidden plastic cutlery should go ahead and use the plastics, but stash them in his backpack for later reuse.)

And it’s not just colleges that aim to trim their trash: the cities of Palo Alto, San Francisco, Austin, and Seattle (to name a few), along with General Motors, Xerox, Toyota, and Bank of America have made similar commitments to zero in on their waste.

Zero Undefined

But if “zero waste” is trending, it’s not clear exactly what that trend entails. “Zero” doesn’t usually mean zero. Often it refers to 90% diversion (10% waste), and typically includes only solid waste, not water. A few institutions, including those in the University of California system, aim for 95% diversion. American University, where students learn the motto “throw away doesn’t mean go away,” seems to be the anomaly in taking “zero” literally. According to its sustainability website, American University’s zero waste policy pledges “to develop a plan for reducing and diverting 100% of the university's waste stream.”

More often “zero waste” is a philosophical, not a mathematical, goal. The term was coined in the 1980s by the chemist Paul Palmer, a Yale Ph.D. who engineered ways to reuse chemicals leftover from the burgeoning electronic technology industry by mixing them into useful, sellable blends. Frustrated with the “recyclers” bent on reusing trash by melting, smashing, and re-manufacturing the waste into new products, Palmer promoted ways to redesign systems of production so that waste outputs from one process served as usable inputs for another—no melting, smashing, or “recycling” required.

Palmer’s thought echoes in universities’ zero waste statements: Arizona State explains that “Zero waste is a philosophy that encourages the intelligent use of resources and redesigning processes that will ultimately lead to the demise of waste,” and Humboldt State University explains the concept as “a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused.” The University of Vermont describes “a philosophy of changing our business practices, our personal and institutional habits, and our purchasing decisions to result in less waste or ‘zero waste.’” As Aquinas College explains, “the concept of waste will take on an entirely different meaning.” That’s because once the system is re-engineered to run at maximum efficiency, waste won’t exist: It is, in the words of the University of Vermont, “an unexploited resource.”

“Nature,” where symbiosis supposedly prevents the environment from clogging with debris, provides the theoretical inspiration for “zero waste.” In answering its FAQ “What does being zero waste mean?” ASU replies that zero waste “takes after sustainable natural cycles – processes where cast-off materials become resources for other natural processes, leaving no waste behind.” Aquinas College, in its Climate Action Plan submitted to the ACUPCC, echoes: “Nature operates in a system where the needs for millions of species are met without producing any waste because unused or excreted materials become food for other organisms.” The idea is that human systems are in some way artificial, second-rate, and a burden on non-human “natural” ones. This idyllic image of nature diminishes man’s place in the world. It sees little need for humans to improve upon the world in which they find they. Man becomes mere imitator, rather than artist, creator, inventor, maker.

Zero Money?

The movement takes on an economic dimension, too. Zero waste isn’t zero cost. Pursuit of “zero waste” bespeaks a naivety that ignores the economic law of diminishing marginal utility. Reducing, say, 15% of all waste might not have been too difficult, but eliminating 100%—or even 90%—requires radical costs and substantially more effort. Consider Ohio State University, where waste management teams have snatched every trash receptacle out of the football stadium. The Buckeyes prevent game-goers from bringing food into the stadium for fear they might track in non-recyclable plastics. Vendors are required to sell their wares and refreshments in compostable containers. Volunteers monitor composting and recycling bins to ensure nobody wastes usable goods. If any trash does find its way into the recycling bins, trash teams fish it out later.

For their efforts, Ohio State earned the honor of becoming in 2012 the first “zero waste” stadium, after achieving a season high of 98.2% of all waste diverted from the trash into recycling and composting facilities. That honor cost about $134,000, according to a case study from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. OSU’s sustainability coordinator spent 20-25 hours each week preparing for zero waste games, in addition to 12 hours on each game day and 6 hours on clean-up the day after. At each game, between 10 and 12 volunteers spent 8-12 hours at the stadium on game day. Another 6-7 volunteers spent 6 hours the next day. Using the most conservative numbers, that’s 174 hours invested weekly into eliminating a total of about 30,000 pounds of trash at a cost of $134,000 annually. That’s about $4.45 per pound of trash.

OSU’s zero waste efforts give a high-profile to an expensive, trendy one-off event. Fans smug in their eco-ethics snack on pretzels packed in cornstarch-based bags, only to return to Styrofoam takeout and disposable plastics the next day. It’s the institutional version of bulimic purging.


Most institutions like to believe that their zero waste gimmicks—even if pricey and short-lived—lead to long-term gains. Zero waste-themed events—from OSU’s football games and commencements to UC-Irvine’s homecoming—aim at subconsciously motivating students to ingest the principles of recycling and to pattern their behavior accordingly. In other words, institutions expect the purging to become regular lifestyle habits. Arizona State’s Zero Waste FAQs note that its administratively-imposed zero waste pledge is “a grassroots movement, one in which every single Sun Devil will make a huge difference,” and its “Zero Waste Roadmap” lists three objectives:

·         Education about Zero Waste initiative

·          Action/Participation focusing on behavioral change

·          Create a network of Zero Waste Ambassadors

Amidst the dry language of the “Policy and Procedures Manual,” the University of California-Davis breaks into lofty language describing its responsibility “as a leader in the community” for “creating a culture of sustainability with regard to environmental policies and practices.” University of California-Irvine notes that its zero waste policy can “play a significant role in preparing students to be caring inhabitants of this planet and equipping them to address present and future environmental challenges.” The University of California-Santa Barbara is perhaps most open in its project to inject a zeal for recycling into the campus norms. A section called “Behavior modification towards waste management” in its 2012 “Waste Diversion Plan” admonishes that “Modifying individuals’ behaviors towards waste management issues starts with education. Formal education is great, but even informal education is crucial in making a change.” It goes on to hint at new administrators convening trash support groups to pressure skeptics into obeying:

Waste management needs to become a comfortable discussion topic, where individuals encourage one another to properly recycle and compost but also feel comfortable in calling out community members when they have identified a waste management mistake. Behavioral modification does not require a top-down approach but, rather, a more comprehensive strategy that includes all parties regardless of their social standing.

If taken literally, the goal of zero waste sacrifices legitimate expenses for human happiness in exchange for minuscule environmental gain. The vocabulary of zero waste inspires thrift, moderation, and contentment: It’s the institutional version of the “less is more” mentality. But realistic implementation of zero waste calls for radical self-deprivation. At one zero waste community, denizens of the Dancing-Rabbit Eco-Village in Missouri strive religiously to exist using the fewest resources possible. They shower in rainwater, live in straw-bale buildings, eat locally grown food, and forgo flushing toilets, central heat, and clothes dryers. One resident felt compelled to glory in her misery: “Sustainability isn't about deprivation, it's not what you're doing without, it's what you're doing with and it's how one's life can be really joyful and full and fantastic while at the same time being thoughtful and using less.”  

But increasingly, “conserving” resources means not using them at all. A student at Whitman College, prepping for a sustainability conference at Western Washington University, noted the term’s shifting meaning: “Sustaining yourself traditionally means having enough, but now it seems to [mean] having as little as possible.” One devoted zero-waster at the University of Michigan took that charge seriously for a year, zealously recycling and composting his waste and forgoing most waste-creating activities. At the end of the year, he had produced a mere 7.5 pounds of trash, compared to the 1600 pounds that the average American supposedly produces in one year. The university then applauded him and invited him to give a lecture meant to inspire students to go and do likewise. Living frugally and responsibly is wise. But since when is self-induced deprivation and mere subsistence praiseworthy?

The “zero waste” fad is yet another example of colleges and universities choosing to groom students into progressive activists rather than careful observers and thinkers. One wonders if such extreme de-trashing efforts are not themselves a waste.  

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