Runkle Hall on a quest for zero waste

The Office of Physical Plant and Housing have worked together on recycling efforts before. But in their quest for "zero waste," one group in particular needed to be included -- students.

Starting this semester, Runkle Hall in North Halls is venturing to become zero waste, a goal of reducing trash output to zero -- or to as close to zero as possible.

The pilot program will give OPP and Housing officials useful information on how to introduce the program to the rest of campus. However, those same officials want to make it clear that students are running the show.

"It's one thing to design a program as an administrator," Assistant Director of Housing David Manos said. "It's a whole new animal when you bring students in, and they share their energy and perspective."

EcoAmbassadors, University Park students interning with the Environmental Protection Agency and working through the Campus Sustainability Office, have partnered with OPP, Housing, Residence Life, and the students in Runkle Hall to develop the program.

The student ambassadors are calling the initiative "Green it Together." They have charged themselves with the promotions, communications and research of the project. Runkle Hall houses 230 students. It was chosen because it is home to Earth House, an environmental Special Living Option that about 75 percent of Runkle residents are a part of.

"The ecoAmbassadors were interested in doing something with and for Penn State," OPP Supervisor of Central Support Services Al Matyasovsky said. "Finding out what we can do to make a residence hall zero waste appealed to them."

Matyasovsky added that the program will attack everything that’s in the waste stream. An extensive collection of recycling bins can be found on each floor of Runkle Hall. Students can drop in an array of waste, including plastic, glass, metal cans, paper, polystyrene and compost. There is a trashcan, but it's marked with a sign asking, "Are you sure?"

Starting this semester, each student room gets a recycling bin with a small compost canister attached to the side. Compostable bags are also included to wrap up food waste. The ecoAmbassador students developed an informational brochure and included it with the cans.

"We are an academic institution and all of us are learning something all the time," Manos said. "The potential is really exciting and it's student-driven. It's right on every level."

The goal of zero waste is attainable. Two Penn State locations -- Shaver's Creek and the Quarterback's Club -- are already working as zero waste operations. Transforming Runkle Hall may be a different beast, but Matyasovsky, Manos, and North Halls Housing Assistant Manager Jan Mason are adapting to student needs and behaviors.

Matyasovsky said it's a call to action that comes down to a small change in habits. With contributions and buy-in from the students, the program benefits the University more than just environmentally. When the University added food waste to its recycling program, it saw its numbers increase 20 percent.

"That means dollar savings for the University," he added. "Those dollars benefit operations and is transformed into roofs and sidewalks and flower beds. There are a lot of reasons we're doing this."

There is also a learning aspect that the organizers hope students take with them into their future lives. In turn, Mason is learning how to proceed with future projects that involve students and recycling—two areas that he is particularly passionate about.

"The student groups we work with are very practical," he said. "Sometimes they introduce ideas or concepts that are hard for us to accomplish, but they are very much in mind with what students would do and the actions they would take to recycle.

The student organizers had a pizza party in Runkle to kickoff the program during the first week of classes. They also started a Facebook page to further school their fellow students in the environmental initiative. It is an energy and perspective that OPP and Housing officials do not take for granted.

"Any time we've been able to include students, the product has been better," Matyasovsky said. "As we move toward zero waste, it's enhanced with students. This is going to be another example of student involvement making it better for our University."

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Last Updated February 01, 2012