Penn State Housing takes big steps toward 'zero waste' goals

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A year ago, Penn State Housing, with help from the Office of Physical Plant and Residence Life, embarked on a seemingly impossible quest. Its goal was to change habits, raise awareness and increase options in an effort to make the residence halls zero waste.

A daunting task indeed. But starting with North Halls last spring and now in several East Halls buildings, on-campus students have proven they are not afraid to take on the zero waste challenge.  

“They’re on board here,” said Jan Mason, East Halls Housing manager. “It took some time to adjust and some education, but now we have the buy-in we’re looking for, and we’re ready to move forward.”

From the beginning, organizers knew the importance of student involvement. Without them, the program would be trashed. Fortunately, it was an initiative students could get behind, and by the seventh week of the pilot program in Runkle Hall, students went from recycling 21 percent of their waste to an impressive 72 percent.

“Jan has done an exemplary job with the students and the physicality of this program,” said Al Matyasovsky, supervisor of Central Support Services at OPP. “It’s attractive. It’s functional. I think students understand it, and it’s become one of the best waste management programs that we have.” 

From the student side of things, word of mouth, social media and a small change in routines were a driving force. From the administrative side, officials provided the resources, which included elaborate and clearly labeled recycling centers on each floor. With the help of Matyasovsky, OPP was able to collect an assortment of materials that many students didn’t know were recyclable. 

Polyurethane, batteries, light bulbs and ink cartridges are all collected. There is also a composting bin that endows mulch for some of OPP’s landscaping needs across campus. Each collection bin is clearly labeled and includes information on what exactly can and cannot be recycled. 

Students and staff are closer than ever to living and working on a zero waste campus. Eighteen out of 53 residence halls have a zero waste option. The Penn State Board of Trustees recently joined the initiative by setting a zero waste goal that charged the University community to think green. Both are huge strides in the quest for zero waste.

“Our Housing Sustainability Committee is positioning all of our (Housing) buildings for zero waste beginning in the 2013 fall semester,” said Assistant Director of Housing Dave Manos. “That’s 53 buildings.”

By evaluating how the students participated, organizers noticed a few trends that influenced student behavior. Some observations were obvious — like students eat a lot of pizza and are heavily influenced by their friends. But they also found that things like class schedules, weekend events and general convenience influence students too.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the participation,” Matyasovsky said. “There are piles of stuff coming to the back of the (residence hall) buildings that we’ve never gotten before. It’s unprecedented. We know something good is going on inside because we’re getting more stuff.” 

One theory that Mason, Manos and Matyasovsky believed at the start of the program still holds strong today: Students need to be included every step of the way. Their energy and support make the quest for zero waste possible.
 

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Last Updated January 22, 2013