Illustration by Rose Collins

UC Santa Cruz diverted half of its solid waste from landfills last year, missing by 40 points a UC-wide goal mandating that each campus reuse, recycle or compost 90 percent of its solid waste by 2020. 

No UC campus achieved this goal — and in the case of UCSC, obstacles ranging from budgetary shortfalls to shifts in the international recycling market prevented it from eliminating landfilled waste.

“There’s been a lack of communication on issues like the recycling, and the composting, and the plastics that we sell here,” said Cassandra Wood, a member of UCSC’s Student Environmental Center (SEC). “If the university heard us, that we’re serious, and can really work with us, we could get so much more done.”

Recycling Dreams

Some campuses came close to the zero waste goal. In 2017-18, UC Irvine diverted 82 percent of their waste from landfills, while UC San Francisco and UC Davis diverted 78 and 72 percent respectively.

But where other UC campuses have slowly improved their rates of waste diversion year to year, UCSC’s rate dropped from about 60 percent in 2017-18 to 51.5 percent in 2018-19. 

This is due in large part to a new Chinese policy that effectively banned the import of low-grade recyclables from the U.S. So, when a November 2018 municipal waste audit found that some types of recycling coming from UCSC were contaminated at rates as high as 70 percent — well above the contamination threshold Santa Cruz’s Dimeo Lane Resource Recovery Facility can process in-house — the city decided to stop processing its recycling entirely. 

Santa Cruz has since resumed accepting some of the university’s recycling. Kristen Perez, the city of Santa Cruz’s waste reduction manager, said that an increasing amount of the recyclables UCSC sends to Dimeo Lane is of acceptable quality.

“The content that we are getting from UCSC is anywhere between 75 to 80 percent of good, clean recycling,” Perez said.

Kristen Lee, program manager of UCSC’s sustainability office, said much of this improvement is thanks to new dining hall policies rolled out in fall 2019. Staff are now trained in the proper sorting of recyclable material and manning of bin stations on days when disposable dishware is used instead of reusable stock. 

Still, Lee said, the campus has yet to see the payoff of these new policies. 

“I believe it is safe to assume that the campus diversion rate for this academic year is similar to that of last academic year,” Lee said in an email.

Best Practices

Of course, some UC administrators have long argued that the premise of the zero waste goal was flawed to begin with —  a flat diversion rate goal of 90 percent is much more difficult to achieve at some UC campuses than it is at others. UCSC grounds manager Julie Sutton, who oversees much of the campus’s waste management practices, said that Santa Cruz’s recycling infrastructure puts a ceiling on university efforts to improve diversion rates. 

“Every city has different processes for managing their waste,” Sutton said. “In order for us to get to zero waste, it’s as good as the city of Santa Cruz can be for zero waste.” 

Take the case of compostables, which account for about a fifth of the waste UCSC sends to landfills. The university sends its compostables to be processed at a facility in Marina, California, a 50 minute drive southeast of UCSC. UCSC’s composting is bottlenecked to the amount it can truck over, as well as the Marina facility’s own quality requirements. 

In the past, campus planners have considered the idea of moving UCSC’s food waste processing in-house by constructing the campus’s own industrial composting facility. Such a facility would, however, come with a price tag of $16 million in 2016’s dollars.

Lee pointed to the fact that while UCSC’s waste diversion rate has been getting worse over the past few years, the per capita amount of trash its students generate has been dropping. On average, each UCSC student generates about a pound of trash per day, down from about 1.3 pounds in 2016-17. 

But it isn’t difficult to see areas where UCSC could improve its waste diversion practices. Although campus housing accounts for about a fourth of UCSC’s waste footprint, only 30 percent of its trash was diverted from landfills in 2017-18.

Cassandra Wood, a member of the SEC, said that since policies that address housing waste depends on students buying into behavior changes, such policies need a greater measure of cooperation between the administration and campus environmental organizations. 

The SEC is planning to introduce a lending library of dorm room items that students can check out, use for the year and then return to be used by another generation of students.

“When people move out or even move in, they bring a lot of stuff they don’t need,” Wood said. “And then they throw it out and leave it on the sidewalk, even near the dumpster. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen perfectly great condition fridges and microwaves, coffee makers and stuff.” 

But since the SEC is an organization of 10 members, implementing a campuswide policy is nearly impossible. 

“Who is ready to step up?” Wood said. “Because student orgs can only go so far. We have to have support from others.”

Click here to read CHP’s past coverage of UCSC’s Zero Waste Goal