USC launches zero-waste pilot program at USC Village and Health Sciences Campus

Students expressed hope that the program would help USC meet its sustainability goals.

USC launched its first zero-waste pilot program at the Village and Health Sciences Campus (HSC) on Nov. 9, installing multi-stream bins with pour stations to dump liquids in a continued effort to achieve 75% waste diversion by December 2020.

Scheduled to run for four weeks, the pilot program installed a total of eight outdoor multi-stream waste bins to develop an effective on-campus waste diversion plan by observing people’s disposal behavior and measuring the dumped waste, said Gina Whisenant, who oversees the pilot program as waste and recycling supervisor for Facility Maintenance Services at USC.

Each new bin has three slots: landfill, recycling and compost. Four of the bins have additional pour stations to help reduce the contamination of paper waste by liquids, such as unfinished coffee in a discarded cup, Whisenant said.

“We frequently found through our waste audits that there’s a lot of liquid in our recycling,” Whisenant said. “Our main focus right now is getting the contamination out of our recycling and getting the composting into the correct slot.”

Outlined in its Sustainability 2020 Plan, the 75% waste diversion goal reflects the combined rates of the two USC campuses (University Park Campus and Health Sciences Campus), the Village and USC-owned housing off campus. Currently, about 30% of USC’s waste is diverted from landfills, according to Whisenant. The city of Los Angeles has mandated 90% waste diversion by 2025.

Whisenant noted the current diversion rate has not taken into account waste reduction and recovery, such as the reuse of silverware in dining halls and the donation of housing furniture to nonprofit organizations. “All of those will be in our numbers by December 2020, so we do expect to see an increase, and we expect it to be a lot closer [to the 75% waste diversion goal],” she added.

Some students expressed hope that student awareness of the program would increase and bring USC closer to meeting its sustainability goals.

“A big thing that [the Environmental Student Assembly] and other student groups can do is to promote what [USC is] already doing,” said Olivia Heffernan, a sophomore environmental studies major and the director of advocacy at the Environmental Student Assembly. “Originally, we wanted to implement change at the institutional level through policy, but now that we are seeing the policy being changed, it’s important that students know how to work with that policy.”

Whisenant said the Village and HSC Pappas Quad were picked for the pilot launch because they are areas with more occupancy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the small-scale pilot has made it easier to control and address the problems that have emerged.

“Some people threw away top ramen in our little sink, so it catches all those noodles,” Whisenant said. “That’s something we, from an operation standpoint, have to look at. What if we had full occupancy [on campus]? How many ramen noodles would I have in all of my pour stations?”

To prepare for students’ eventual full return to campus, Whisenant said her team may work to improve the signage on the bins, put up more effective messaging for proper recycling techniques and educate through social media with the help of the Office of Sustainability.

“I’m really excited about [the zero-waste pilot],” said Brooke Bell, a fifth-year PhD student in preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, who also studied mathematics as an undergraduate at USC. Bell was invited to join the USC Sustainability Steering Committee as a representative of the HSC in 2018 after she contacted the Office of Sustainability about initiatives to make HSC more sustainable. “There are a lot more [programs] far along at University Park Campus, so I wanted to see what the plan was for HSC,” Bell said.

HSC had “pretty few recycling bins” and no compost bins, Bell said. For a campus that Bell said has not had “wide-scale” sustainability initiatives, “[the pilot] is probably the largest change that has happened so far,” she said.

Katie Robinson, a freshman environmental studies major currently living at an off-campus apartment, said she looked forward to checking out the new bins the next time she goes to the Village.

Robinson said she became familiar with green.usc, the Office of Sustainability’s Instagram, and saw the zero-waste pilot post through a class project that asked students to follow one of USC’s social media accounts for sustainability and analyze the effectiveness of the university’s actions in meeting its sustainability goals.

“[The pilot] made me really, really happy and really excited,” Robinson said. “Composting is pretty rare around just any type of restaurant. In the Village, a lot of people have a lot of food waste, and they just end up throwing it away in the landfill.”

Since her inauguration, USC President Carol Folt has said sustainability is one of her top priorities. Folt announced the sustainability master plan scheduled to guide USC’s environmental programs through 2028, supported the 2019 student climate strike and praised Galen Center’s solar installation.

In 2018-2019, USC installed 106 trash bins, 84 recycling bins and 15 composting bins at University Park Campus and USC Village, along with 49 multi-stream waste bins at HSC, the Office of Sustainability website said. In winter 2020, USC Housing introduced composting bins to its residential buildings.

Emy Li, a freshman applied math major and a member of the Environmental Student Assembly, said the green.usc account “really helps” people stay connected and informed.

“It’s definitely been encouraging to see what USC has been working on, students working with the administration, to really get things going,” Li said. “I’m optimistic about it.”

Based on the responses of more than 940 USC members who participated in the survey for the university’s Sustainability 2028 Plan, recycling, waste and plastic are the three most important issues USC should focus on to be more sustainable.

Whisenant said her team will continue with the audits to identify areas where a high percentage of food is being dumped. “Now we have 43% organics in our trash,” she said. “If you get that 43% out, that’s when we start getting up to where we can reach those zero-waste goals.”

Other pilot programs will roll out later this year at both University Park and Health Sciences campuses, Whisenant said. The programs will include poppers and dehydrators for food waste at dining facilities to reduce hauling fees. But the programs will be “very dependent on when students can return,” she added.