Sophie Romans
Sophie Romans

The People Behind UCLA’s Waste Reduction

By Sophia Romans

A quick stroll down Bruin Walk leads to yet another icon of campus activity: the newly reopened Pauley Pavilion. Games are exciting, a classic component of college, a much needed break in a busy schedule, but they too generate waste. By the end of any big sporting event the waste receptacles brim with the remnants of halftime meals, large drinks, bags, and posters or packaging from fan apparel.

Fortunately for our planet, UCLA has both ambitious goals and people dedicated to minimizing the environmental impact of our campus hubs. The University of California set system wide targets for 75% waste diversion by the year 2012, and zero waste to landfills by 2020. UCLA surpassed the 2012 goals, reaching 80% diversion last year; and the push towards zero waste continues moving forward. I recently sat down with Karen Noh, the Special Projects Director for ASUCLA, and Jessi Hampton, third year student leader for the new Action Research Team dedicated to making Pauley Pavilion a Zero Waste facility.  My goal was to get a better sense of how UCLA staff and students alike are leading our campus towards a more sustainable future.

On any typical weekday morning, the front doors to Ackerman Student Union scarcely have time to swing shut before people entering or exiting the bustling center of campus fling them open again. Thousands of patrons take advantage of the dining facilities, textbook store, and grocery corner, as well as a myriad of other services. What do all of these activities have in common? They all generate waste.

Few students who purchase study snacks on campus are probably aware of just how connected that water bottle in their hand is with the plastic shopping bag toting their newly purchased blue books and highlighters. (Aside of course from the trivial relationship that they are, in fact, both made of plastic). I was curious about the recent Los Angeles County wide ban on plastic bags, which led me to ask Karen Noh about ASUCLA’s plans for plastic bag usage in our stores. Neither the county nor city ordinances have gone into effect, so UCLA’s focus on shopping bags is at this point voluntary and forward thinking. Her answer was they are not trying to move from plastic bags to paper bags because “neither is really great.” Rather ASUCLA has built a close relationship with the manufacturer of the bags in order to make them as environmentally friendly as possible. The bags are made from 100% postconsumer plastic, some of which comes from UCLA itself. Whenever ASUCLA receives a large shipment, such as a case of water bottles with a thin plastic film around it, they return that packaging directly back to the bag company to be used as materials. Ms. Noh says that because of the close relationship ASUCLA has fostered with the bag manufacturer, “they know they are getting non-contaminated materials.” Relationships like this one with the bag manufacturer offers substantial sustainability benefits for both sides.

While the environmental impact of our plastic bags has no doubt been drastically reduced, ideally customers at stores on campus would move away from plastic bags altogether and begin carrying ASUCLA’s foldable blue reusable bag. It was designed with student lifestyles in mind. Just like the reusable library mug that was launched in 2000, it is small and has the ability to be clipped onto a backpack. But Ms. Noh has found that the students have not been particularly receptive to this product, at least to this point in time. Launching sustainability initiatives through ASUCLA has a unique set of challenges. The ASUCLA is not a part of the university and thus has to make sure they are maintaining profitability in order to keep student fees down. The success of projects such as the reusable shopping bag, the spill proof library cup and the reusable mug therefore depend on demand. Karen Noh thinks often people hesitate to adopt these changes because of the notion they have that committing to an environmentally improved lifestyle is an all or nothing choice. She wants to spread the message to people on campus that “once a week is better than never” for activities like using the reusable bag or asking for your coffee in a mug. She emphasizes that it’s ok to use plastic water bottles from time-to-time, as they are often very convenient. But people should continue to purchase reusable, portable bottles and cups because “even if you only use it half the time, it reduces a lot of waste.” Getting people to change their habits is a process that requires a great deal of time and patience, and Ms. Noh says that usually “the biggest challenge is to train people.” However she is optimistic that once people slowly begin to make more environmentally conscious choices, they will quickly fall into these conservation habits. Other factors such as reducing the costs for sustainable options and greater convenience can also sway people, as Ms. Noh has seen with digital textbooks and the recent Fall 2012 launch of digital course readers. Whatever peoples’ motivations are, they don’t need to start huge, just making little changes in their everyday lives contributes greatly to waste reduction.

ASUCLA is no stranger to making these small but significant changes. Flexibility was a key element when designing the new South Campus Student Center with LEED ratings in mind. Ms. Noh remarks that she is not a huge fan of the patio furniture, but reusing those tables and chairs from other parts of campus was a contributing factor to making the building process more sustainable. Certain tradeoffs also had to be made, such as not installing a large pizza oven simply due to the amount of energy it would consume. I’m sure most would agree that the variety of great dining options at the South Campus Student Center more than makes up for lack of pizza. This planning and flexibility paid off tremendously when just two and a half months ago the building was award a LEED Gold rating, the second highest rating. A rating this high is no easy feet for a food facility to attain, as food preparation and consumption is notorious for being high in energy usage and waste. With its native garden roof, green space, and composting program in the kitchens, the South Campus Student Center is a model for future renovation efforts on our campus and elsewhere.

Another new building on campus that has been at the center of a sustainability push is the famous and recently redone Pauley Pavilion. This time, the forces behind the vision and planning are students. The Action Research Team program through the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability aim, according to their website, to “increase campus sustainability by fostering a collaborative relationship between students, staff and faculty—providing the tools to research and implement sustainability initiatives on UCLA’s campus.” Environmental Science major Jessi Hampton leads an Action Research Team that is in its first year. The team has the goal of making Pauley Pavilion a zero waste facility. Jessi was driven to participate in the program not only by her passion for the environment, but also by her love of sports and her Bruin pride.

Student engagement and support will be very important to the Pauley waste team just as it is for ASUCLA’s sustainability efforts. Jessi and her team are busy understanding the types of waste that events at Pauley generate so they can design the most efficient bins. They walk around campus and surrounding areas taking pictures of waste systems that work and are easy to understand. It is very important for waste diversion efforts that people can easily and quickly understand which receptacle to use for each item, because the contents of a recycling bin must be thrown away if it is contaminated by food. Jessi and her team aim for bins that are comprehesive but simple to use. In the mean time, they hope to engage student volunteers in their first zero waste event. The plan is to start with a smaller event such as a women’s basketball game, where they will have student volunteers stand by trash and recycling bins and help people sort their waste. The team has received funding for promotional shirts for the volunteers to wear. Even though fully achieving zero waste to landfills is unlikely by the end of Spring quarter when this Action Research Team concludes, Jessi says that she “likes that the title is Zero Waste, because ultimately that is our goal.”

Waste reduction on our campus has an exciting future. The same aspects that make sustainability efforts at UCLA challenging also position our school to be a leader. Because ASUCLA is run like a regular store, Karen Noh sees an opportunity to be a model for other environmentally conscious operations. She says “things that work here can work in the retail world as well.” Similarly Jessi Hampton thinks that because of the attention that Pauley Pavilion gets, “it can be a flagship of creating what UCLA campus should look like.” If all goes according to plan, by the year 2020 Ackerman Union will still bustle with people on weekday mornings, Pauley Pavilion will still be the vibrant center of school spirit, and UCLA will send no trash to landfills.