Reassessing the Campus Approach to Zero Waste

Have you ever considered what happens to your trash after you throw it away on campus? Or how the supplies and materials you use came to be purchased? These seemingly unrelated questions shaped the trajectory of our work as Zero Waste Interns for the Zilkha Center. We partnered with the environmental consulting firm Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) to complete their ATLAS Assessment, a holistic review of Williams’ waste practices. This assessment helped illuminate waste operations from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives. We conducted interviews with departments across campus in order to gather information that will enable Williams to develop a strategic plan to get to zero waste. Zero waste is traditionally defined as a 90% diversion rate, which is the amount of waste thrown in the compost or recycling as a percentage of the total waste. 

This assessment focuses on two scopes of waste – that which the college has direct control over and that which the college purchases but does not have control over which bin it is disposed of in. The ATLAS Assessment also uses three foundational understandings to guide the planning process. The first is that the diversion metric does not accurately measure zero waste. A campus could reduce its overall consumption and waste while still seeing the diversion rate increase. Secondly, standardization is the key for successful implementation of zero waste initiatives and programs. Infrastructural changes must precede behavioral change. Lastly, campus-wide zero waste may require a reshuffling of program management (e.g. compost would have to be managed by Facilities instead of Dining if it were to become campus-wide).

Along with these universal suggestions for waste reduction, we also found that Williams more specifically must implement policy changes in order to address these challenges. These policy changes need to occur at an institutional level and be backed up with funding. We recommend the creation of a Zero Waste Task Force to work with the Zero Waste Interns and Zilkha Center to manage the implementation of these new programs. The push for policy is so critical because we need to actually build systems that allow Williams to become more waste efficient. The onus is not on the individual to move our campus towards our sustainability goals, but to mandate and commit to them on an institutional level. Of course, the substance of these policies matter. They should address areas like: creating and mandating usage of a surplus property management system, a waste efficient procurement policy, the implementation of a campus-wide compost program, expanding education around waste and sustainability, implementing a standardized bin system across campus, and more. 

Throughout the Stage 1 process, we have been inspired by all of the programs and initiatives that faculty and staff have started on a departmental or individual level. These initiatives have included a glove recycling program in the Science Department, composting in Goodrich, and fabric reuse in the Theater Department, to name a few. However, we need to push the college further by committing to making concrete change on an institutional level. This will come with the Sustainability Strategic Plan put forth earlier this year as well as the second stage of the ATLAS process, which brings together stakeholders for strategic-visioning. The Zero Waste Task Force along with Zero Waste Interns will work to manage the changes that will subsequently be implemented. This process will also be assisted by other, smaller projects we worked on throughout the year, such as working to create a first-year education program focused on zero waste and the putting together of a composting-case study that looked at campus-wide compost systems at peer institutions.

-Lauren Lynch ’23 & Coco Rhum ’23, Zero Waste Interns Fall 2019 – Spring 2020

To learn more about Atlas, visit the Williams Zero Waste Atlas Assessment page.
Click here to read Coco and Lauren’s piece in The Record about COVID-19 and waste.