ASU’s zero waste program has been so successful that it has pushed the university to consider new approaches to the concept.

“We are moving toward finding circularity in the materials we input and output here,” says Levine.

This concept, known at the university as circular resources, is based on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy Diagram, which maps out efficient use throughout the life cycle of material resources. Levine equates it with reverse engineering.

“We look at every material and object on our campus as eventually being a piece of waste,” she says. “Then we reverse engineer from what is best to put into the world so we can make really informed purchasing decisions.”

As a large producer of solid waste, ASU feels that it has a responsibility to both increase the value of materials it sends out into the world in terms of waste and stay local with the materials it purchases, when possible.

Although circular resources is a new concept for the university, ASU has already started implementing the principle. During the construction of a new building on campus, the university looked at how to move demolition materials into the community in a positive way. They wanted to increase the value economically, but also leverage those materials to create a positive change.

For example, an olive tree had to come down on site. Through some research, Levine’s department discovered that the burls from olive trees have great value in woodworking. The wood from the tree was then sent to the university’s art department and out into community programs that teach underprivileged local children how to work with wood.

“Instead of chipping and composting the tree, we actually raised the value and re-use of that material by leveraging it into the community for positive social change,” recalls Levine.

Whether organizations are interested in starting a composting program, turning waste into money or ready to explore a circular economy model like ASU, now is a great time to learn more about zero waste. Petroleum-based material costs are going up and so is the demand for recycled materials across the developing world, according to Ashkin.

“Nobody believes the cost of disposing waste is going to get cheaper,” he says. “And nobody believes the price for virgin materials isn’t going up. These recyclables and other waste materials are starting to have more meaning and value. The zero waste movement is happening simply because it makes sense.” 

NICOLE BOWMAN is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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