'4th bottom line' key to sustainable waste materials management for universities

Jeff Mulhollem
September 30, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Universities that institute large-scale, employee-managed, sustainable waste materials management programs must be willing to pay a high price, according to Penn State researchers, and the cost may be justified by a “fourth bottom line” approach. The research, which was recently published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, won an award from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

“Perhaps counter to most people’s expectations, having campus users sort, separate and properly dispose of waste materials into multiple streams, such as glass, metals, plastics, paper, compostables and trash, is an expensive proposition,” said Judd Michael, professor of agricultural and biological engineering in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “University leadership must be committed to sustainable waste management and ‘doing the right thing.’”

employee recyclng

One of the unique aspects of the study was calculating the cost, or developing a method to calculate the cost, of administering a personal waste management system in which each employee sorts his or her own materials. 

IMAGE: Michael Houtz

While some sustainability efforts, such as energy or water reduction, have strong financial paybacks, being “green” with respect to recycling and composting does not enjoy such a clear business case, Michael pointed out. To justify the high cost of managing waste materials, he advocates, university leaders can consider a fourth bottom line in addition to the triple-bottom-line framework typically used for sustainable decision-making.

The traditional triple-bottom-line framework considers economic, social and environmental impacts of decision outcomes — known as “the three Ps” of profits, people and planet. Although this concept originally was intended for the business community as a tool for incorporating social and sustainability issues into organizational performance, the triple-bottom-line framework increasingly is being applied as a decision-making framework in contexts outside the private sector.

However, for mission-driven organizations such as institutions of higher learning, the triple-bottom-line framework is inadequate, Michael contends.

Continuing the alliteration, researchers called the needed fourth bottom line “purpose,” which in the case of universities refers to education and engagement. The quadruple-bottom-line concept suggests that universities can incorporate sustainability-learning opportunities into their decision-making. It acknowledges that there is an intangible value to education, and often that is seen as greater than actual out-of-pocket costs.

university compost

The Penn State composting operation collects material from the bins in academic and office buildings, dormitories, organics from greenhouses, dining hall operations and sports venues. The compost is used in all of Penn State’s building operations where there is a need for soil.

IMAGE: Judd Michaels

The research, which used Penn State as a case study, deployed a unique accounting method to determine the costs of the university’s personal waste management system. System costs are calculated for the entire university and for sample units within the university. The researchers also demonstrated how opportunity costs — the value of employee time — can be applied to better understand the true costs of such waste management programs.

“The way we applied the fourth bottom line is definitely unique — this is the first time that it has been done toward a sustainable waste materials management plan,” he said. “The research is focused on a Penn State case study, but we think this could be a blueprint for other universities. We put into context how any higher education institution can justify making good choices about sustainability in the face of the same financial challenges.”

Nathaniel Elser, a doctoral degree student in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, contributed to this research.


(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 24, 2019