Bins in McHenry Library encourage positive waste habits. The bins are separated into clean paper, container recycling, compost and food waste and waste to landfill. Photo by Josephine Joliff.

The UC’s zero waste deadline is just around the corner, but last year only 69 percent of total UC waste was diverted from landfills. 

A student campaign prompted the UC to create a sustainable practices policy in 2003, and in 2006, the UC established its goal to have zero waste systemwide by 2020.

In concrete terms, zero waste by 2020 means 90 percent of waste at UC locations, excluding health centers, will be diverted from landfills by the 2019-20 fiscal year. The UC Office of the President (UCOP) outlines this policy with established midway goals on its website, but UC sustainability administrators call the goal aspirational. With “zero waste by 2020” plastered near waste cans across campus, students find the messaging misleading.

“It sounds really good and it’s a great PR message,” said Maximillian Pérez, Student Environmental Center (SEC) liaison, “but if you look into what campuses are actually doing, unfortunately a lot of them are very far from that goal, which I found especially with [UC Santa Cruz].”

To become zero waste in the future, the campus would first improve waste collection operations, update bins and signage, look at ways to donate food and compost the rest locally, said Elida Erickson, UCSC director of sustainability.

Erickson pointed to recycling contamination and food waste as factors keeping the university from reaching its goal.

“UCSC would have to overcome significant challenges in order to make the goal by 2020,” Erickson said in an email.

A mountainous 40 percent increase in more waste diversion stands between the university and next year’s goal. UCSC is currently diverting only about 50 percent of its waste from the landfill, down 10 percent from last year because the city of Santa Cruz stopped accepting the campus’ contaminated recycling. (Read more about the state of UCSC’s recycling on page 6)

The individual UC campuses are on their own to create and fund their own plans to meet the unfunded mandate. UCOP has a systemwide working group to share best practices, and created a marketing campaign called My Last Trash, which asks individuals to repurpose items and cut back on single-use plastics. 

UCSC’s Sustainability Office hopes to encourage a campuswide shift in mentality about waste to be people-oriented and focused on justice. The Zero Waste Team is working to establish a regular composting service and numerous educational programs.

“I’d like to remain optimistic that maybe in five more years, we could be much closer to that 90 percent goal,” Maximillian Pérez said.

UCSC sustainability programs manager Kristen Lee said the office is now working on a Zero Waste Action Plan to establish concrete steps toward zero waste taking current conditions into account. The office will continue to work toward zero waste after the deadline passes, and so will UCOP.

This year the UC systemwide working group is preparing future zero waste goals beyond the 2020 mark, said UCOP director of sustainability Matthew St. Clair. Those goals for 2025 or 2030 will draw on lessons learned over the past 10 years.

“All campuses have put a lot of time, effort and resources into the zero waste goal and they’ve all made tremendous progress,” St. Clair said. “The goal was adopted in 2006 and it’s been exciting to see how it transformed their waste management programs in response to this aspirational goal.”

In the eyes of students like Pérez and Liane Bauer, media and outreach co-chair for SEC, the UC’s lack of specific goals and initiatives led to its inability to reach the zero waste goal by the deadline. Pérez and Bauer hope the UCSC and UC Sustainability Office will collaborate with student organizations in the future to establish working goals.

“Student organizations are seeing that the university is not acting for us,” Bauer said. “That’s putting us in a position where we need to act for ourselves, but at the same time, that really sucks because this is something the university promised us and we really should hope that our [administrators] keep their promises.”