It’s early on a Sunday morning last October and the parking lot outside Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium is unusually empty. The night before, UT played its first Big 12 home game of the season—and its first during the pandemic—against Texas Christian University, cheered on by a smattering of fans whose shouts of encouragement were muffled by their mandatory facemasks.
Under normal circumstances, the stadium would have been filled with tens of thousands of screaming Longhorns packed shoulder to shoulder, a nightmare scenario during a global pandemic. Rather than canceling the games outright, the stadium limited its capacity to 25 percent and the truncated football season was played before a small audience. One of the few semblances of normality were the thousands of pounds of crumpled beer cans, greasy popcorn tubs, splintered peanut shells, soiled napkins, and ketchup-slicked condiment wrappers that piled up in the receptacles at the end of each fourth quarter. But for the first time in years, there was no army of student volunteers to sort out the recyclables.
In 2012, The University of Texas committed itself to diverting 90 percent of all trash generated on campus to recycling or compost centers rather than the landfill by the end of 2020. The ambitious goal kicked off a wave of sustainability efforts both large and small throughout the university. Research labs established reuse protocols for gloves, plastic food cartons were exchanged for compostable trays, and even the grounds crew found a way to reuse fallen tree branches. One of the most successful programs to come out of the university’s zero waste directive was the sustainability sort squad, which has managed to rally thousands of students to divert waste produced during football games from landfills.
Before the pandemic, dozens of students in bright green T-shirts emblazoned with “Sustainability Squad” would gather outside the stadium the morning after each home football game to separate items from the trash that could be recycled or composted. The effort grew out of an initiative started by Texas Athletics in 2010 to reduce waste from football tailgaters, which soon evolved into a more ambitious effort to achieve zero waste at all sporting events. Before long, it had become one of the most successful zero waste programs on the Forty Acres, one which sees Texas Athletics regularly diverting between 60 and 70 percent of waste from home football games. During the 2019 football season, the Texas Athletics Sustainability Squad prevented a total of 359,800 pounds of waste from ending up in the landfill. But when COVID-19 struck in March 2020, the department made the decision to stop the sorting program indefinitely.
Smaller crowds this past season didn’t necessarily mean less waste. Although there were fewer folks binning nacho trays, there was a new stream of disposable masks and gloves worn by spectators, as well as a significant uptick in the amount of single-use packaging at concession stands to address public health concerns about shared items. Condiment dispensers have been replaced with small packets, and buffets have transformed into single-serving meals. Much of the new concessions packaging is not recyclable, which George Arredondo says actually led to more waste at football games last season. Arredondo, who took over as Texas Athletics’ sustainability program manager in 2019, says they still achieved above a 50 percent waste diversion rate during home football games, though, and he’s working with vendors to find eco-friendly concession packaging for next season’s football games.
“We pretty much knew going into the football season that we would have an increase in landfill items,” Arredondo says. “Unfortunately, we have no way to control this at this point since this operation is in the best interest of keeping our fans and staff safe.”
Despite reports that UT was far off its original 90 percent goal set almost a decade ago, sustainability staff on the Forty Acres is working hard to continually increase the university’s waste diversion rate. In the same way that the zero waste initiative was created so that the university could adapt to a changing climate reality, it must pivot again in the aftermath of a world-changing event.
ZERO WASTE DEFERRED
Considering that the Forty Acres has over 50,000 enrolled students and hosts hundreds of thousands of fans at its sporting events each year, UT’s 2012 goal of recycling or composting 90 percent of campus waste was a herculean task. But as the world grapples with the realities of climate change, resource depletion, and landfills reaching capacity, waste reduction efforts have become more important than ever. “It reflects our determination to tackle one of the most pressing and complex problems of our time,” then-UT president Gregory Fenves said when the campus doubled down on its commitment to zero waste and unveiled its “Sustainability Master Plan” in 2016.
UT’s zero waste efforts extend far beyond its stadiums, and Texas Athletics is hardly the only department that grappled with achieving its sustainability goals during the pandemic. Broadly speaking, UT’s waste reduction initiatives can be broken up into three main categories: housing and dining, university facilities, and the campus in general. The challenge for each prong was how to rapidly adapt to a health emergency without destroying years of progress in waste reduction.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the university’s zero waste infrastructure—a formal President’s Sustainability Steering Committee that sets high-level sustainability goals for the university and UT’s Office of Sustainability, which collaborates with a loose network of student-run groups on various programs—proved to be a significant boon to its COVID-19 response efforts. On March 30, 2020, UT moved all classes online for the remainder of the spring semester and urged students not to return to campus. Only essential staff were allowed back on campus, and following proper safety protocols was a challenge due to a nationwide mask shortage. Within days of the quarantine going into effect, the UT Office of Sustainability teamed up with Custodial Services and Project Management and Construction Services to convert 400 pounds of T-shirts into around 1,000 no-sew masks based on designs provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The T-shirts were provided by the Trash to Treasure project run by the Campus Environmental Center, one of the oldest student-run organizations at UT. It collects unwanted clothing and other reusable items from each UT dorm and sells the items back to UT students for a dollar apiece. This program, which diverts thousands of pounds of waste from Austin landfills each year, proved critical to keeping the university’s essential services running by providing staff with the masks.
“While this was primarily a serendipitous moment when a resource that had been considered ‘waste’ could be remade into something valuable, it demonstrates the larger principle in zero waste and circular economy efforts,” says Jim Walker, MS ’98, who has served as the university’s director of sustainability for the last decade.
But not all the university’s zero waste programs could rapidly adapt to the public health crisis while maintaining their sustainability goals. University Housing and Dining, for example, has been a leader of UT’s zero waste initiatives, but had to sideline many of its programs as it pivoted its focus to keeping students safe as they transitioned off campus in the spring and back on campus in the fall. The department launched Zero Waste Hero in 2018 to train students as zero waste evangelists, but the program revolved around in-person classes and volunteering at events. Zero Waste Hero was put on indefinite hiatus until its organizers could transition the program into an online-only format.
Like like Texas Athletics, the biggest challenge faced by University Housing and Dining during the pandemic was reducing waste from new food packaging. Effective waste reduction starts at the point of consumption, which means swapping out non-recyclable single-use cups, flatware, and containers for compostable or reusable materials. UT had made big strides toward integrating composting at its dining facilities and supporting programs like Eco2Go, which sold reusable clamshell takeout containers to students. But health considerations from the pandemic forced the dining facilities to adopt single-use plastic clamshells that can’t be recycled as a temporary measure to address public health concerns about shared-use items and surfaces.
“We are seeing a huge increase in single-use everything,” Neil Kaufman, the sustainability coordinator for University Housing and Dining, told the Alcalde last fall. The reason, he says, is that it took a while to figure out supply chains for more sustainable takeout containers, which can be twice as expensive as low-waste alternatives. In November, Housing and Dining switched to compostable clamshells and Kaufman says the department is looking for other ways to safely incorporate zero waste principles until it can resume normal operations.
Reuse programs like Eco2Go have been central to UT’s zero waste ambitions and have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. The crown jewel of the university’s reuse initiatives is MoveOutATX, a collaboration between the university and the City of Austin, which is also pursuing a zero waste goal. Devised in 2017 by City of Austin Conservation Program Coordinator Madelyn Morgan, BA ’13, MoveOutATX is essentially a giant garage sale with furniture and other household items donated by many of the 18,000 students who live in UT’s West Campus area. Before MoveOutATX, these items were being abandoned when leases ended each July. Instead of trashing them, students can donate items to MoveOutATX in exchange for discount coupons to local restaurants and stores. The furniture and other reusable items, in turn, find new homes with local Austin residents.
The program was an instant success. After only two years, the program had diverted over 150 tons of reusable material from Austin landfills. But when the lockdown was announced in March 2020, it quickly became clear that it would be impossible to safely host the event as students rapidly vacated their apartments. The program was canceled for 2020 and, for most of the year, its future was uncertain. In February 2021, key stakeholders in the MoveOutATX program from the City of Austin and the university met to discuss whether it would be safe to resume the program for the spring semester. The group made the decision to resume MoveOutATX during the last two weeks of July, but in a limited capacity to ensure the safety of students and the public.
“Unlike previous years where a large number of volunteers were present during the event, we will not have volunteers at each drop-off station and there will be slightly fewer drop-off stations,” says Bailey Grimmett, a spokesperson for the City of Austin’s Resource Recovery department. “But we hope to see a large number of donations to benefit the community and help reduce unnecessary waste during move-out season.”
NEW WASTE NEW CHALLENGES
Kathy Mosteller, the associate director for nursing and clinical operations at University Health Services, has been a passionate zero waste advocate ever since UT hired her 17 years ago. When Mosteller arrived at Health Services, the campus clinic didn’t have recycling stations, so she spearheaded a program to put recycling bins in the clinic’s break rooms for aluminum cans. Her efforts have snowballed from there. Today, University Health Services uses compostable table sheets, participates in a universitywide glove recycling program, and has lowered the amount of waste to the point that some parts of the clinic, such as the ER, only have a single trash can in the building.
Within weeks of the start of the pandemic, Mosteller and her colleagues at UHS had set up proactive community testing sites, or PCTs, that offered COVID-19 testing to UT students, faculty, and staff. By the time students started trickling back onto campus in the fall, the PCTs were doing around 1,000 saliva tests a day across two sites. Mosteller’s main goal was to keep Longhorns safe, but once UHS hit its stride, she turned her focus to reducing the waste generated at the testing sites.
Mosteller and a small team at UHS worked with UT’s Environmental Health and Safety department to identify items in the test kit that could be safely recycled or sent to a landfill. The goal was to reduce the amount of COVID-19 testing kits that ends up as biohazard waste and must be burned. Most of the testing kits come in recyclable cardboard boxes and starting in the fall, the PCTs also began recycling the small plastic funnels that are used to collect patient spit into a test tube.
“At the beginning, everything was going in landfill waste, except for obvious things like cardboard boxes,” Mosteller says. “But the majority of things are now in recycling, which is fantastic.”
Other aspects of the PCT program, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) for clinicians, were harder to address from a waste management perspective. Some PPE, such as disposable gloves, creates unavoidable waste; you just can’t safely reuse them. But other PPE, like plastic full-face coverings, can be sterilized and reused. The testing itself is also bound to create a substantial biohazard waste stream, like the plastic test tubes that carry patient saliva to lab facilities where they are screened for COVID-19.
“We’re always going to have biohazard waste, but we don’t want to increase the volume if we don’t have to,” Mosteller says. “Everything that can go in landfill waste is now going to landfill instead of biohazard waste.”
The biohazard waste generated from the COVID-19 testing sites on campus is handled by Hazardous Materials, a unit of UT’s Environmental Health and Safety department. Under normal circumstances, Hazardous Materials collaborates closely with UT’s Green Labs program, a largely student-led organization that has focused on reducing waste at UT research facilities since 2011. Each year, student volunteers for the Green Labs program divert over 1,000 pounds of batteries and several thousand pounds of other materials, like Styrofoam, nitrile gloves, and cold packs from the landfill. While many of these programs had to be temporarily paused during the early stages of the pandemic, the Hazardous Materials team was able to put its experience handling toxic substances to use by helping labs properly dispose of materials that may possibly have been infected with the virus.
THE FUTURE OF ZERO WASTE ON CAMPUS
A key component of UT’s zero waste efforts is using data to understand how waste flows through campus—who’s generating it, what kind is it, and where does it end up? Before the pandemic, Lindsey Hutchinson, one of UT’s zero waste coordinators, would pilot a team of student interns in a campus-wide waste audit. Together, they regularly sorted through waste generated at each building on campus—its old food containers tossed in the faculty offices or used paper towels from the restrooms—to get a better understanding of how the building could improve its waste reduction habits. She also aggregates the waste weight data from UT’s Office of Sustainability, which orchestrates the removal of trash, recycling, and composting materials to off-site processing facilities.
Altogether, Hutchinson says she collects waste information across 55 different categories. This gives her a holistic picture of UT’s waste reduction habits, ranging from the raw tonnage of recycling and compost to the waste items peculiar to a given academic department. The mix of quantitative and qualitative data, “helps us get a better understanding of what those numbers actually mean,” Hutchinson says. “We get a sense of what students may think is recycling but actually isn’t. For example, a lot of people think that hot liquid paper cups are recyclable, but they can only go in a landfill. There’s a big learning curve for the different materials and the messaging that’s being used.”
Hutchinson says the pandemic required temporarily suspending the regular waste audit. The annual waste audit will still be conducted at the end of the year as planned, which will reveal the full impact of COVID-19 on waste-reduction habits. Hutchinson says that the pandemic resulted in a roughly 60 percent reduction in waste, which is largely a result of having fewer people on campus, no large events, and reduced food services. But because of the university’s investment in waste diversion processes and cross-department sustainability coalitions, the percentage of waste diverted from landfills didn’t change much during the pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, coalitions like the sustainability roundtable already existed, and having those relationships in place allowed us to keep moving and not lose a lot of progress during that period,” says Bob Moddrell, UT’s resource recovery manager. “Those relationships were critical.”
It’s still uncertain just how the pandemic will ultimately shape UT’s zero waste initiative in the long term.
Walker, UT’s director of sustainability, says the President’s Sustainability Steering Committee is still working on its planned five-year update to the sustainability master plan, which was last updated in 2016. He says it’s too early to say how the goals in the master plan will change when it’s released later this year, other than it will be driven by the needs and capabilities of the frontline sustainability workers on campus. The 2020 deadline to divert 90 percent of waste on campus has come and gone, but even before the pandemic, it was clear the university would fall far short of this goal. According to Moddrell, the university had managed to divert about 42 percent of its waste at the end of 2019.
“The diversion goal created in 2012 was really aspirational,” Moddrell says. “We’re not close to 90 percent, but we’re continually working day-to-day, year-to-year to increase diversion rates through improved processes.”
And progress has been made toward that vision despite the challenging circumstances created by the pandemic. In 2019, for example, UT’s Resource Recovery department launched a program to divert all the hand towels in the university’s restrooms into a compost stream. Restroom hand towels account for nearly 10 percent of all waste generated on campus and successfully diverting most of these towels by creating dedicated receptacles in every restroom would be a major step toward UT’s waste diversion goals. Although the hand towel program was temporarily paused at the beginning of the pandemic, within a few months it was back on track and about a quarter of the waste receptacles in the university’s restrooms have already been converted.
There’s also the Green Labs initiative, which launched its Surplus Chemical Redistribution program during quarantine, allowing researchers to donate chemicals they no longer need to other labs while dramatically reducing hazardous waste on campus. Others, such as the University Housing and Dining team, have been focused on standing up virtual replacements for previously in-person programs like Zero Waste Hero.
Hutchinson says one of the biggest challenges with achieving zero waste on the Forty Acres has been teaching students and faculty on good waste reduction habits. Part of this effort has involved making sure that most trash cans are paired with a recycling container and clearly marking the receptacles. But people still get confused and end up placing items in the wrong containers. In fact, Kaufman, the sustainability coordinator for University Housing and Dining, says that just before the pandemic the university dining facilities stopped accepting compost because there was so much contamination from non-compostable materials.
In this respect, the pandemic has created a unique opportunity for the university’s sustainability leaders to come up with new educational strategies for achieving zero waste when campus life returns to normal. For example, University Housing and Dining is working with Resource Recovery to create new signage and online tools that instruct students and faculty how to properly dispose of waste, recycling, and compost. During the pandemic, the group interviewed students over Zoom to gather data on how they responded to the new signage to further hone the messaging strategy. If there’s any silver lining to the pandemic, Kaufman says, it’s primed people to be responsive to messaging around large-scale problems like waste reduction.
“Early on in the pandemic we saw really effective messaging around flattening the curve, social distancing, and wearing masks—these kinds of behavioral changes where we all have to work as a community to address this invisible problem,” Kaufman says. “I’m optimistic that there are going to be a lot of lessons learned from COVID mobilization that we can apply to zero waste and to climate change as a whole.”
Illustrations by Michal Bednarski