Allyson Katz/Sun Contributor

A dumpster of construction waste at R5 full of materials – wood, electronics, paper – which R5 Materials Coordinator Mark Hall said could have been recycled if they had been properly sorted.

April 17, 2023

Mixed Bags: Cornell’s Beyond Waste Campaign Highlights the Triumphs, Tribulations of Waste Management

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Cornell’s annual Beyond Waste Campaign, which spanned from Feb. 14 to March 31 this year, is an initiative run by the Campus Sustainability Office that aims to create awareness, action and community around waste use and management.

The campaign included participation in the national Campus Race to Zero Waste competition and featured events from faculty, student clubs like Residential Compost Management and Cornell alumni. The events included speakers like the Hatfield lecture with Marriott CEO Tony Capuano, gallery exhibitions on sustainable fashion and training on sustainable leadership and how to certify an event as sustainable.

Campus Race to Zero Waste began in 2001 as Recylemania, a competition between Ohio University and Miami University that utilized the schools’ intense sports rivalry to incentivize students to see who could recycle the most. Cornell joined in 2010, and in the following 13 years the competition has expanded beyond recycling to include other categories such as food organics, waste minimization, targeted materials and diversion and electronics recycling. 

The competition’s goal is to reduce waste to zero on college campuses by diverting at least 90 percent of waste from becoming trash through upcycling, recycling, composting, donations and resale.

In 2020, the national campaign was renamed the Campus Waste to Zero Waste. Over the eight-week period, Cornell — among other schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Macalester and University of Ottawa — reported its waste and competed in each category.

Cornell has historically performed well in the competition. In 2022, the University came first in electronics waste recycling, third for food waste diversion and 25th for landfill diversion. This year, Mark Hall — materials coordinator for Cornell’s recycling and waste repurposing center, R5 — said in an email to the Sun that Cornell came in 28th out of 89 in landfill diversion, 35th out of 101 for the Per Capita Classic and 12th out of 82 for food organics.

According to Sarah Carson, the Campus Sustainability Office director, the University’s priorities in the Beyond Waste campaign differ from those of the national competition.

“Cornell puts more emphasis on waste reduction [versus waste diversion] than the national campaign,” Carson wrote in a statement to The Sun. 

Cornell’s campaign goals focus on emphasizing proper waste management among the community — including waste reduction, proper sorting and encouraging campus engagement through sustainability events.

“From electronic waste to fast fashion, we need to think beyond worn-out, one-size-fits-all solutions to the waste that results from our society’s linear use of materials,” Cornell’s Beyond Waste website states. “Together, we need to fundamentally reimagine the ways we produce, distribute and consume goods in order to move beyond a ‘waste disposal’ mindset — where goods are simply disposed of at the end of their life — and into a ‘beyond waste’ mindset.”

Waste reduction efforts can be seen in Cornell’s sustainable purchasing efforts to buy re-used, efficiently made or partially recycled items. R5 runs the System for Trade & Auction of Cornell Surplus program that stores furniture in good condition that it receives from campus facilities — such as when buildings are demolished — and auctions it off or reallocates it to any department for free. There have also been efforts to track food waste by Student Sustainability Coordinators in order to reduce overconsumption by students in dining facilities. 

As waste reduction efforts like Beyond Waste have grown, Hall said that Farm Services and R5 have worked alongside the Sustainability Office for the past few years in order to improve the rates of landfill diversion on campus.

At the Tour of Cornell’s Compost Facility, an event part of the Beyond Waste campaign led by Farm Services Supervisor Bill Huizinga, students toured Cornell’s composting facility — which is not usually open to the public — and gained insight into how Cornell’s Food Waste Program is able to achieve its impressive Campus Race to Zero Waste rankings. 

According to Huizinga, Compost bins are collected in 32-gallon metal cans from dining halls and eateries and transported to an open pile composting facility off-campus. There, the 800 tons of food scraps are combined with animal bedding and plant debris to create piles of compost that, once decomposed, are sold to local community members, donated to charitable organizations or used by Cornell agriculture and landscape operations. 

When the composting program tried to implement open bins — composting bins available to all community members at Cornell — Huizinga found pervasive contamination from non-compostable items — cigarette butts, compostable cutlery that was unable to break down and other trash that students had mistakenly believed to belong there. 

The prevalence of ‘compostable’ utensils and garbage delayed the decomposition process, sometimes preventing piles from composting entirely, Huizinga said. It also meant that the composting facility had to reject more bins than before, as the small-staffed team didn’t have the time to sort through all of the contamination.

This mass contamination was especially troublesome for Huizinga, as the facility relies on its compost sales to fund all programming. 

“We have to cover our costs,” Huizinga said. “We don’t get any extra money from the [University] or anything.”

Farm Services currently only accepts food, napkins and compostable bags and mainly collects compost from dining hall facilities that have been trained on disposal — though Huizinga said some contamination still makes its way into the compost. 

Similar issues of contamination plague the recycling bins of the R5 Operations. At an electronic waste collection event for the Beyond Waste campaign, Hall said the main barrier to collecting recyclable materials was contamination.

“[Contamination] is the problem,” Hall said. “If they’re picking up a recycling load and come across a bag that has, let’s say, landfill in it, they have to disqualify the whole load. So the problem is not only [people’s lack of recycling knowledge] … It’s also implementation. Unless you’re standing there, right by the container, every time somebody throws something away, [there will be issues].” 

While he was speaking, Hall pulled a series of wires from a bin of construction waste and said that demolition workers had not been trained to separate electronics, wood and metal into their respective dumpsters.

Compost Mounds in various stages of decomposition at Cornell’s composting facility. Allyson Katz/Sun Contributor

“If we see an open dumpster, we are just gonna throw the stuff in,” Hall said. “It’s one of those things [that requires] education, and we’re going through the process of trying to educate these guys that don’t do [this right].”

Hall explained that to address the problems of contamination, the Campus Sustainability Office, Farm Services and R5 have been working to track where most rejections are coming from so they can educate the populations of those areas on how to properly dispose of their waste. 

“We talked to the sustainability office about [contamination] because we’ve been getting statistics that we are rejecting this many loads,” Hall said. “But we didn’t know [Casella] was rejecting loads. So if they are going to reject a load, let us know the area it was coming from so we can make that more of an educational focus for that group of people.”

Carson stated that there have also been efforts to increase educational signage around recycling bins. Hall echoed this sentiment, saying that more direct and widespread education efforts are needed to increase recycling rates, which lag far behind composting rates during the academic year. 

According to the March 2023 report from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System — a self-reporting measure of colleges and universities sustainability efforts — Cornell composted 3,921.35 tons of waste, donated or resold 27.95 tons and recycled 910.38 tons — in total, the University generated 7,671.01 tons of waste. 

During this year’s Beyond Waste period, more waste was recycled than composted. Hall wrote in a statement to The Sun that this year, Cornell recycled 378,595 pounds of waste, whereas 344,450 pounds of waste had been composted.

For Hall the goal of sustainability — and Beyond Waste — is to keep materials in use as long as possible.

“You want to take this stuff and move it to a place [where it] gets used again.” Hall said. “Use it till it wears out.”

Allyson Katz ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].