To reach the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, in Tempe, a visitor must walk past a number of other departmental offices. Walking down the hallway, all the offices look the same — lights on, printers buzzing, staff bustling about. At least that is the case until they reach the last door.

Walking into that last doorway in the back corner, a visitor might wonder whether or not it is even an occupied space. The overhead lights are off, there are a handful of bicycles lining the walls and only a small microwave and water cooler in sight. But, it all makes sense — the staff in this department practices what they preach.

Senior Sustainability Scientist and Director of University Sustainability Practices Nicholas Brown uses only the daylight shining through his window to light the workspace. The bikes lining the walls belong to him and his staff, who ride to and from campus. In place of traditional conference room furniture, Brown’s office features mismatched kitchen tables and chairs that were no longer needed on campus.

And in the corner, the absence of trash receptacles and presence of recycling bins are a hint at the department’s impressive sustainability achievements.

In November 2013, Brown and his team expanded their Zero Waste program to include select, high-traffic sports venues throughout campus. The goal behind this aggressive move is exactly what its name implies — minimize the waste going to landfills to as close to zero as possible.

In fact, the university’s benchmark is to eliminate 90 percent of solid waste generated on campus from landfills by 2015. And through the use of recycling, repurposing, reusing and composting, the campus gets closer to its goal each day.


Developing Zero Waste

In 2002, ASU President Michael Crow said, “We are at a critical juncture in the evolution of our relationship to the environment; universities must take the lead in addressing issues of sustainability.”

That statement launched the blueprint for today’s sustainable advancements on campus. The plan included the implementation of green cleaning, environmentally preferred purchasing and, eventually, the partnership between the Sustainability Practices Network and Brown’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

By 2011, that partnership group put aggressive sustainable goals in place to reduce consumption, maximize efficiency and rethink products and actions, all the while producing long-term operational savings. Among bold initiatives such as carbon neutrality, active engagement and principled practices was the desire to drastically reduce the waste ASU contributed to landfills. The Zero Waste initiative was born.

“Students and visitors were accustomed to seeing the blue recycling bins with our trash receptacles throughout campus,” says Brown, “but we needed to create more awareness of sustainability and Zero Waste does that.”

Zero Waste means eliminating waste receptacles and replacing them with only recycling and composting bins.

Blue bins are used for single-stream recycling (a.k.a. commingled) of paper, plastic, aluminum and glass. The content collected in these bins goes to one of the three Material Identity Facilities on campus, which processes and sorts the items collected.

“Staff will sort out the glass, soft plastic and plastic films,” says Brown. “Then the machine and its mix of air puffs, lasers, magnets, inclines and such will sort everything else.”

Those recycled materials are then compacted using solar-operated equipment prior to transport to recycling plants.

Accompanying these recycling bins at collection sites are green compost containers. These receptacles are designed for collection of proteins and dairy, as well as biobased products — including bags, film, napkins, food and beverage containers, and cutlery — that are both biodegradable and compostable.

Because some of these compostable items can decompose relatively quickly in the Arizona heat, staff is responsible for emptying these containers every one to two days.

“We are sensitive to additional staffing costs associated with implementing a new program like this,” says Travis Lambert, a former ASU student and current campus custodial advisor from Crystal Cleaning. “But we are willing to create amendments to remain a leader in sustainability.”

Following collection, the compost is either converted into biogas or fertilizer designed for use at surrounding area farms. In fact, as of the October 2013, the partnership between ASU and local farmers had diverted an average of 12 tons of waste from the landfill each month.

CORINNE ZUDONYI is the editor of Facility Cleaning Decisions magazine and

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Implementing Zero Waste Programs At High-Traffic Facilities