campus news

Waste audit helps UB identify opportunities to improve recycling

Aerial view of trash receptacles lined up near tent where a waste audit was taking place.

Trash receptacles are lined up near tents where the waste audit was taking place near Bell Hall. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published October 31, 2023

“Waste audits help identify opportunities to reduce waste, inform and justify development of sustainable consumption programs, and clearly see where improvements to recycling can be made. ”
Erin Moscati, zero waste manager
UB Sustainability

Just over a ton of trash is collected across UB’s three campuses every day. Making sure that the campus community understands how to properly dispose of all that waste is a critical component of the university’s goal to become climate neutral and move toward zero waste by 2030.

That’s why, on a recent weekday morning, UB Sustainability Zero Waste Manager Erin Moscati and a team of student and staff volunteers got together to complete a grimy, stinky — but very important — task: conducting a waste audit of campus trash. Over the course of two days, they collected 2,140 pounds of trash and recycling generated over a few days from a dozen buildings on the North, South and Downtown campuses and sorted through 1,569 pounds of it.

The point of all this? Education.

“Waste audits help identify opportunities to reduce waste, inform and justify development of sustainable consumption programs, and clearly see where improvements to recycling can be made,” says Moscati.

Given that UB produces approximately 1.2 tons of garbage daily, it’s imperative that trash is properly sorted, meaning anything that can be recycled is placed into a recycling tote instead of the garbage bin. The waste audit was revealing in that it helped UB Sustainability identify both points of confusion and opportunities to improve.

For example, are people placing compostable items in recycling bins? Are single-use, disposable food containers accounting for a large chunk of the waste stream? Are there materials that everyone seems to be confused by? Are there items that lack a recycling end market, or for which an end market exists but UB’s waste stream isn’t currently capturing them?

And, more importantly, how can the university make it easier for the campus community to engage in sustainable behaviors?

“The waste audit was a great engagement tool to not only show students and employees what we are doing, but why we are doing it and how it will help get us to where we want to be by 2030,” Moscati explains. “It will help us identify where, as a campus, we need to focus first. Is it switching to reusable packaging for food service, or do we need better recycling education because people are putting recyclables in the wrong bins?”

Smiling people sort through trash during a waste audit.

Volunteers sort through trash. Photo: Douglas Levere

The waste audit, which sorted through two streams — recycling and trash — provided some clues: The recycling stream revealed that 24% of the material should actually have been disposed of as trash and 9% of the recycling stream had potential to be composted; meanwhile, 18% of the trash stream should have been recycled and 23% had potential to be composted.

The waste audit was part of the university’s work with Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), the firm UB contracted with to provide an integrated zero waste management plan for the campus. Over the summer, RRS representatives visited campus for a walk-through and site assessment that included identifying contamination issues, bin locations, whether trash and recycling were paired, and signage providing guidance on how to properly use the bins.

A person dumps out compostable waste from a recylable plastic food container.

A volunteer removes compostable material from a recyclable food container. UB produces approximately 1.2 tons of garbage daily. Photo: Douglas Levere

The new UB integrated zero waste plan will:

  • Summarize the campus’ baseline waste management practices and performances by documenting existing conditions for recycling, composting and waste removal, and the gap that may exist between this and achieving zero waste by 2030, along with best practices from other top-ranked public and private research universities.
  • Identify short- and long-term strategies.
  • Propose an implementation timeline to help the university achieve its goals.
  • Identify the infrastructure initiatives necessary to achieve zero waste at UB, including indoor, customer-facing collection equipment; exterior, service-facing dock equipment; custodial collection equipment; and specialty equipment for kitchen settings, wet and dry labs, residential facilities, athletic venues and outdoor public events.
  • Describe the change management plan for how the integrated campus zero waste management plan will be implemented across the university.
A person loads garbage into a truck from a large bin as another person watches.

UB Sustainability Zero Waste Manager Erin Moscati went on a ride-along with UB Facilities staff members on garbage day in early October to learn more about UB’s waste stream. Photo: Douglas Levere

UB’s zero waste efforts also include plans to order new indoor receptacles for recycling, organic materials and trash to replace the university’s existing infrastructure, which may be a major reason why there’s confusion on campus around what is recyclable versus trash, Moscati says.

It’s one small but significant piece of the university’s larger initiative to become climate neutral by the end of the decade.

“Our work to achieve zero waste is an important part of UB’s Climate Action Plan — not only as we strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to ensure the campus community can easily engage in sustainable behaviors that have a tangible and visual impact,” says Laura Hubbard, vice president for finance and administration.