K-Cups in a zero waste bin

So I got a lot of comments on my first post about going waste free. Thanks to everyone for all the questions and ideas. I think that the one that kept surfacing the most was around the theme of what is zero waste actually?
I thought maybe this would be a great place to start the next installment of this series... If we want to be zero waste, well... "what is waste?" seems like a great place to start.

If you have ever had the misfortune of attending one of my presentations you might remember me saying that there is no such thing as waste. This is technically true but not quite practically true.
Take Bill Gates and his project to recycle nuclear waste. I think that we could all agree that nuclear waste is pretty high on the list of "difficult things to recycle"... but it is not impossible to recycle or reuse, nothing is given enough time and money.

But we aren't really interested in fringe waste, we are interested in the everyday stuff like gum wrappers, broken umbrellas, or cigarette butts. A lot of attention has been paid lately to disposable coffee cups and why they can't be recycled. Actually coffee cups are a great example because although they can technically be recycled, it is impractical to do so.

When I say impractical what I really mean is expensive. Look at the company TerraCycle for example. They are a great organization who work with companies to recycle basically any product you can imagine. The catch.... they are pretty expensive. Let me give you an example.

If I want to recycle a bunch of paper, like an entire bin full of it, I could do that for about $45 dollars. That includes the pick-up of the bin and the tipping fees (which are non-existent for recyclables). When you work it all out and exclude the labour costs for the University, we are taking about something like maybe $100/tonne for paper to be recycled.

Folding coffee bags so that they can be recycled at the University of Ottawa
If I want to recycle an equivalent volume of K-cups from the office coffee machine, that'll cost you $171 (for a large box). The last box we sent weighed about 42 kilos so my quick math tells me that it costs about $4000/tonne to recycle K-cups. This makes sense given the volume of K-cups people want to recycle and the cost to transport them via the Post Office. But it also means that because it is so expensive to recycle them... very few people will actually do it. Don't get me wrong, even though the program is expensive I still use it.

So let's move this conversation over to the definition of Zero Waste... Is it really what it sounds like and is it even possible if some things cost a bazillion dollars to recycle? Isn't material waste just the cost of living in our modern world?

The common consensus is that zero waste means that you have an end of life strategy for all your resources (note the word resources because waste doesn't exist, right... there is only stuff that isn't useful to you). Sometimes that means composting, recycling, reusing - and sometimes that means giving it away for someone else to use or selling it as feed-stock for another process. Whatever the case, most people would agree that going zero waste doesn't actually mean that there is zero waste at the end... people tend to hover around the range of 96% to 99% diverted from landfill.

So I guess a working definition for zero waste will be "the thoughtful endeavour to manipulate resource life-cycles so that they emulate natural cycles an therefore, as much as possible, send no waste to landfill". 
You can find a million wonderful definitions of zero waste on Wikipedia.

Some of the most coveted waste diversion programs in the world still fall short of the zero waste ideal. San Francisco's Recology is a comprehensive waste management program that achieves an 80% diversion rate (not bad by any standards). And I am sure that you have heard tales about those Norwegian countries that have eliminated their waste by burning it. Of course the problem with that is that they aren't really getting rid of their waste, they are just creating new waste in the form of ash (albeit it a ten-fold decrease in volume). So zero waste isn't as easy as it sounds.

The Ontario government recently passed the Waste Free Ontario Act, a neat little piece if legislation that will help make it easier for municipalities to pay for their Blue Box programs by taxing the producers of packaging, thus reducing packing or financing the means to handle that packaging.

But there is another very interesting part to this act that many people overlook; the second part of this Act is called "Building the Circular Economy". I think that this little nugget is much more interesting than the zero waste part because it frames waste in the context of a resource waiting to be harnessed.

Building a circular economy implies the notion of cradle to cradle, the thought that there is no such thing as a final resting place and that everything we create and use will be used again and again and again...

But we aren't in a circular economy yet, so what can we do today to get closer to zero waste?
Well that's my cliffhanger phrase, you are going to have to wait until next time.

~ jON - campus sustainability manager
A customized recycling centre at the University of Ottawa
The Waste Free Ontario Act was passed on June 1st and so it is time to start thinking about how the University of Ottawa is going to become a waste free campus.

For the faithful followers of the Office of Campus Sustainability you will know that we have been plotting a waste-free campus for years now. Over the past decade, the campus has increased its recycling programs to the tune of a 20% increase in the diversion rate. Lots of cool programs and some pretty decent results across the board.

But lately, our campus diversion rate has stagnated. There are a couple of good reasons why the needle hasn't moved on the diversion rate recently. Let's look at a couple of these reasons so that we can figure out a path to becoming a zero waste campus.


The University of Ottawa is reducing more; instead of purchasing things, we are reusing more stuff or simply not buying it in the first place. This is exactly what happened in the 2014-15 fiscal year whereby the overall stuff consumed dropped by 4%, This sadly makes our overall diversion look less good. Think of something like our Paper-less campaign; the more paper we avoid using, the worse our diversion numbers appear to be.

Here's an example
Let's imagine the University generates 2,000 kg of waste every year. If 1,500 kg of that is recycled, we would have a diversion rate of 75%.
Recycling / Total waste = Diversion Rate
So 1,500 kg / 2,000 kg = 75%

But imagine that we implement the best paperless office program ever and we are able to prevent the need for 500 kg of paper. That means the University would generate 1,500 kg of total waste and only 1,000 kg of recycling (because we aren't recycling any of that paper anymore.
Recycling / Total waste = Diversion Rate
So 1,000 kg / 1,500 kg = 66%

DAAAAAMMMMMMNNNNN, diversion went down even though we did much better for the planet. We have implemented a bunch of great programs which are reducing the amount of stuff we are producing but this translate to sad looking diversion numbers. Don't get me wrong, I will take a lower diversion rate if it means we produced less stuff being consumed any day.

The University of Ottawa's diversion graph for 2015-16


Another thing that keeps hindering our diversion numbers is the total number of students on campus... the number keeps going up! So this is all well and good for our income from tuition (more people = more money) but it doesn't really help our waste numbers (because more people = more stuff).

I know that the number of people you have doesn't necessarily track with more waste but it is an indicator that we use to predict our total waste. What's really tough isn't just the greater number of students on campus, it's the greater number of students living in residences. This year, uOttawa opened a new residence on Rideau Street and added a couple more hundred beds to our housing mix. You need to understand that a student living in residences is very different from a student living off campus. All the waste that the student off campus generates is internalized when they live on campus.

So if you are a commuter student, maybe you eat a couple of meals on campus and maybe you recycle your course notes, but a student in residences produces way more stuff. They cook their own meals, they grow out of their clothes, they have pick up random magazines and flyers. All this is now stuff that the campus has to deal with.

Oh, and let's not forget that there is also a bunch of atypical items that don't usually show up in the normal campus waste stream. Think socks, and toothbrushes, and Halloween costumes, and broken appliances, etc... This isn't the kind of thing that shows up in our commercial waste.


This last one shouldn't be much of a surprise. Contamination is the bane of every recycling coordinator's job. It seems that no matter how well we plan to eliminate waste.... there is always some contamination lurking in the shadows waiting to damped your spirits.

Contamination comes in many many forms. What really sucks about it is that there are so many sources. Sometimes it's because of packaging (everything is wrapped in cheap plastic these days, including bananas and other such egregious items), sometimes it's because of laziness (can't find a recycling bin?.... just toss it), and sometimes it is because the item you have just can't be recycled (like the infamous disposable coffee cup).

You'd be surprised how often recycling bin placement determines how much stuff gets recycled. For instance, a recycling bin in a class room might as well be a garbage heap. Put it right outside the classroom and bam, recycle-rama! But I'll get to that in another post.

Donations flood over the University of Ottawa's Free Store


So here we are sitting at 60% or so and now we need to figure out how to get to zero waste. Impossible? Maybe, but if you know anything about us, you'll know that we always have a few cards up our sleeves. The first thing we are going to talk about is bans... but not until next time.

~ jON - campus sustainability manager

The University of Ottawa is the recipient of the Minister's Award for Environmental Excellence 2015

uOttawa is one of 10 groups in Ontario being recognized by the Province for Environmental Excellence. In particular, uOttawa is being acknowledged for the Clean Air Community Initiative which works towards:
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Improve air quality and climate change resilience
  • Showcase leadership and best management practices in climate change work

Yeah I know, you're asking yourself "So what is a Clean Air Community?"
Well let me tell you... a clean air community is a place that values the quality of the air in its space, especially as it related to the health and environmental impacts it can have for those breathing that air.

So I am not just talking about greenhouse gas emissions, I am also talking about all the other stuff that gets pumped into the air that can make it less healthy.  This is important for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of include that idea that dirty air can trigger allergic reactions, can induce asthmatic attacks, and sucks in general.

Now picture if you will the uOttawa campus, an island in the middle of a sort of big city. Sure there are nice parks and a beautiful canal bordering the campus, but before you can get to those things you have to get past two of the busiest roads in Ottawa (King Edward and Laurier Ave), two highway exits (Mann and Nicholas Ave), and the transit way.

You can imagine why we had some concerns about air quality!

So we took a two-pronged approach to create the Clean Air Community Initiative.
One, reduce the amount of emissions being generated by the power plant.
Two, reduce the emissions coming from vehicles on campus.

Emissions from the Power Plant

The number one source of emissions on campus come from our energy consumption. The campus burns natural gas to make heat and the bi-products are CO2, SOx, NOx and other nasty stuff.

Over the past 40 years, the campus CO2 emissions have been dropping steadily. In 1974 the emissions were north of 27,000 tonnes and last year we were done to just over 18,000 (despite the fact that the campus tripled in size and population). This year, we are expecting to be under 17,000 tonnes. In fact, we could technically cut the campus chimney in half now because we aren't producing anywhere near as much nasty emissions as we did before (the average amounts of sulfur and nitrogen oxides are way down... by like 90%).

We have employed a diverse array of tactics to reduce our energy consumption which drives our greenhouse gas emissions. The centerpiece of our plan is a program we call EcoPresperity, a series of deep energy retrofits which have slashed energy consumption in the buildings on campus. We have also retrofitted old equipment, added more efficient processes, thrown up some solar panels, and we no longer burn any oil to heat the campus. Since 2008 alone, we have prevented over 33,000 tonnes of GHG emissions from making into the air.

Emissions from Vehicles

Emissions from tailpipes are probably the worse things out there for air quality. Sure a giant smoke stack isn't great but vehicles spew out emissions right where you breathe. Ground-level ozone and fine particulates are considered some of the more egregious offenders

So it only stands to reason that we would put into place programs that reduce the amount of cars that come to campus and to prevent people from getting too close to their exhaust. For this we again took a two-pronged approach.
One, remove the barriers related to active and sustainable transportation.
Two, move towards removing cars from the core of the campus.

Increasing sustainable transportation options took years to implement and we needed the participation and buy-in of basically the entire campus. Things got rolling with the creation of a Sustainable Transportation Manager's position, then the adoption of the U-Pass program, then the Bike Coop, A lot of the credit for these program has to go to the Student Federation who embraced the programs and played a leadership role.

Once these bigger programs were implemented, it was easy to get smaller complimentary programs going. The bike repair stations, the car sharing program, and Protections hybrid vehicle fleet are just a few examples.

And then, very recently, the University underwent a series of public consultations to develop its new Master Plan. One of the big themes that surfaced was the idea of making the core of the campus more pedestrian friendly.We are now moving to limit access to vehicles on campus (expect for emergencies and for individuals with mobility issues), thus reducing air pollution, reducing the chance of vehicle collisions, and making the overall campus safer.

Changes to the uOttawa masterplan show how traffic will be reduced on campusIf you're like me, reading is hard and so I have included this nice little infographic that sums up the whole project. I am very proud that the University was able to receive this award and I am grateful to all the people that played their part in making a Clean Air Community.
But our journey isn't over, not by a long shot. So please send your comments and ideas our way so that we can become even better.

uOttawa Clean Air Community Infographic

~jon rausseo - campus sustainability manager

uOttawa, waste bucket challenge, sustainability, recyclemania

We often like to blame our wasteful ways on businesses. Why do they have to have so much packaging? Why do they waste so much during production? Why can’t they make things more durable? These are all very undoubtedly valid points, but we often have trouble taking a hard look at ourselves to see why on the consumer end so much is going to waste.

If there is one thing I learned from my Waste Bucket Challenge, it is that my nemesis was never businesses putting this or that thing in 10 inches of plastic packaging, rather my nemesis was my own tendency to live life in a big rush. Always busy! Always on the go! It was always very possible to avoid garbage but as soon as things started getting busy that went out the window. I forgot to tell my waiter to leave the straw behind, I stopped by the corner store for a snack, I went to get groceries but forgot to bring bags. All of these things happen to me on a regular basis but I only realized how wasteful that busy lifestyle may become, even as I was in this rush to get to work on time at the Sustainable Development Centre. Give yourself time! Don’t over commit to things!

I also have a bit of a confession to make about my Waste Bucket Challenge. I was being lazy at one point cause I did not want to empty the very full dish rack and so I thought it was a good idea to stack on a couple more dishes by balancing them quite precariously. CRASH! Down goes a massive Pyrex dish and smashes into a thousand pieces. Dang... That’s going to add to my Waste Bucket... I simply left it out, justifying in my mind that it was the dish rack’s fault. Take time for simple things! Don’t be lazy!

Another important realization that I truly enjoy up to this day is how I had to activate all sorts of long lost creativity to find solutions to my waste problems. Like when I forgot my grocery bags, I realized on my way there and managed to scrounge cardboard box from behind the store in order to carry my groceries home. There is not even a thought of creativity when you toss something in the trash. It’s automatic.  Creativity and waste reduction go hand in hand!

Almost in equal proportions to my production of garbage decreasing, my production of recyclables increased throughout the challenge. Since, the recyclability of plastic is questionable at best in both how it makes its way to recycling facilities, but also how it is oftentimes downcycled into lower grade plastic. Ideally, I would try to cut out some more of that plastic and focus on reuse even if the plastic I’m using can go in the recycling bin. Reusing is better than recycling!

Waste Bucket Challenges are a tremendous way to get a grasp on how much you produce in a week. The goal of it is in one part to try to reduce but also so that the things that you throw out are there for you to see instead of hidden away in your trash can. That way, you can see what the most common sources of your waste are where progress can be made!

~geoff - sustainability centre coordinator
The University of Ottawa celebrates RecycleMania with the launch of toilet paper, uOttawa raises awareness about food waste

RecycleMania has launched at the University of Ottawa, and indeed around North America, and this year we are using a new tactic that we picked up from our friends over at Penn State Sustainability. It's called Toilet Paper. Basically every 2 weeks we are posting infographics about food waste and recycling in the washroom stalls around campus.

The beauty of this approach is that we basically have a captive audience. The downside is that we get complaints about using paper to promote recycling. But rest assured that we did do a lot of thinking before we decided to post paper... Here are our findings.

Large Posters vs. Small Posters

We considered using large posters to spread the word about food waste and found that because of their positioning on the walls, the visibility of most posters is low and they are rarely read. Numbers vary wildly, but it could be assumed that between 4% and 8% people that pass by a poster will read it.

Conversely, nearly 100% of posters posted in washrooms are read by the occupants. You are kind of stuck in this space with not much else to do... a captive audience as it were.
That’s a potential 25 fold difference in effectiveness!!!
And in terms of paper, we can produce 2 – 3 small posters for each large poster so in order to have the same effectiveness, the small posters win hands down.

We also have the problem of wanting to convey a lot of information about food waste. This usually requires a bit of concentration and having posters in a space where you aren’t going to be doing much else makes more sense. Reading an infographic while walking through a hall likely won't produce the desired retention of information.

Plasma Screens

We considered posting the messages on plasma screens and found that not only are they also rarely read, they produce more carbon on average than a printed sheet of paper.
Screen = 7.6 g of CO2 / hour of electricity used
Paper = 6g of CO2 per sheet (the piece of paper + the printing process)

*A 2013. 50" plasma screen consumes 0.19 kWh according to Energy Star
*The Ontario Electrical grid produces 40 g of CO2 for every kWh

Over the course of a day, a screen in the Dining Hall will produce 182.4 g of CO2. That means we could produce 30 posters a day and still be on par with just one screen.

We intend to leave each poster up for 2 weeks so while the one screen will have produced 2.55 kg of CO2, the 200 posters we intend to print for the entire campus will only create 1.2 kg of CO2.

*This doesn’t include the energy required to recycle the paper vs the screens at the end of their lifecycles.

Do Nothing

We also considered the idea of doing nothing. I mean why not, seems like it would be the best for the planet, right?

Even though we have a zero waste Dining Hall, that doesn't mean that people aren't wasting food by composting a bunch things they should be eating. Well, approximately 771 kg of food is wasted in the Dining Hall each day. Let’s be generous and say that 50% of that stuff is just things like fruit rinds and napkins (and this is a very generous number). Then we have about 385 kg of food waste a day.

If these posters can save:
  • 1 kg of Beef = 27 kg of CO2 = 4,500 posters
  • 1 kg of Potato = 2.9 kg of CO2 = 483 posters
  • 1 kg of Lentils = 0.9 kg of CO2 = 150 posters
If the 385 kg of food waste produced every day were just lentils, we would be able to produce 57750 posters a day and still create less CO2.

* http://www.cs.toronto.edu/~lungj/blog/?p=6

Ideally, I don't want to have to create any posters to raise awareness about food waste. But, as it turns out, I am not as smart as I wish I was. So if you have any ideas about what we can do to be more environmentally sensitive while raising awareness, I want to hear them. I am certain that we can work together to create a world where food waste and paper waste are a thing of the past.

~ jON - Campus Sustainability Manager