Creating a Waste Free Campus at uOttawa: Part 1

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

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

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