‘Zero waste’ in jeopardy

Less composting means more trash in the landfill

Courtney Silver, assistant sustainability coordinator for the Associated Students, is saddened by a change in composting rules that was beyond her control.

Courtney Silver, assistant sustainability coordinator for the Associated Students, is saddened by a change in composting rules that was beyond her control.

Photo by Emily Teague

Chico State prides itself on being one of the greenest campuses in the nation. Last year alone, it collected 412,000 pounds’ worth of compost—a mix between plant-based paper and food products such as plates, cups and food scraps—the Associated Students’ largest step toward zero waste on campus. But due to recent changes, the campus is moving backward in its sustainability efforts.

“We’ve been forced to reduce our composting, which means so much more waste is now going to the landfill and it’s not by our choice,” said Courtney Silver, assistant sustainability coordinator for the Associated Students.

So, here’s what happened: A.S. Recycling contracts with Recology for compost pickup. It’s done so since 2010, when it expanded its composting program to include plates, cups and silverware. And until this past August, Recology picked up that compost, plates and all, and delivered it to Feather River Organics in Marysville. Then, in an effort to retain competitive rates, the refuse hauler switched partners and now works with North State Rendering in Oroville, said Recology General Manager Sal Coniglio. North State Rendering uses a wet digester, which cannot process these items.

That change is a loss to the campus in several ways, Silver said. First, it means more items will find their way to the landfill. Second, it took time to train Chico State students how to separate their trash from compostable items after finishing a meal on campus. Now they have to be retrained in order to avoid paper items going into food scrap bins.

“We’re trying to find alternative options,” Silver said. “Or figuring out if there’s another place to go, but there really isn’t. The closest place would be in the Bay Area, and the negative effects of shipping everything down there doesn’t exactly outweigh [the positive].”

One of the ways the sustainability program is combating the change is by placing interns near trash bins in the Marketplace during peak hours. These so-called “trash talkers” diligently watch students clean off their trays and let them know about the new process. Signs have been placed in these areas, but students continue to mix both, Silver said. The trash talkers hope to educate enough students about the change until a new solution is found.

For Silver, the biggest impact this change is represented by paper towels. All A.S.-owned buildings—like the Bell Memorial Union and Wildcat Recreation Center—have their towels composted in order to reduce waste, she said. Now that paper cannot be placed in those bins, all those towels are being sent to the landfill and creating more waste. What’s more, the university reached its goal of zero waste—specified as 90 percent or higher diversion rate—in fall 2014, reaching 92 percent diversion. This could well set it back under 90 percent.

“We pride ourselves on our sustainable reputation and this takes us down a notch,” Silver said. “It’s embarrassing and painful.”

But Vic Trujillo, A.S. recycling coordinator, sees the change as an opportunity for improvement. Although there will be an impact regarding how much more waste the campus produces, Trujillo would like to find a way to lessen that impact by lowering waste in general. If paper towels are not being composted anymore, maybe it’s time to implement new ways of reducing the amount of towels being used in the first place, he said.

“It’s opened up that opportunity for us to explore every and all assets to potentially consume less,” he said. “This has opened up the rhetoric for the university and the A.S. to [collaboratively] figure out, ‘Are our programs truly sustainable and if so, how is that?’”