iCAP Update: Toward ‘Zero Waste’

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is past the halfway point from Illinois Climate Action Plan 2020 to iCAP 2025. It’s time to check in on each of the iCAP chapters to gauge progress, address the challenges our campus faces, and celebrate some achievements. This month, iSEE Communications Intern Gabe Lareau examines the Zero Waste chapter to see if the university is creating a culture of reuse in order to reach its goal of being a zero waste campus. View the full series >>>




On Sept. 22, 1985, Memorial Stadium shattered its attendance record. A crowd of 85,000 descended on the home of Illinois football for the first-ever FarmAid concert — a 12-hour charity event founded by Willie Nelson and featuring a star-studded lineup. While the concert was a success and raised more than $9 million, no one knows how much waste was recycled at the event — if at all. In 1985, only 10% of Americans consistently recycled.

Campus has made significant strides in establishing a culture of reuse with zero-waste athletic events, the ‘Be Orange Go Green’ campaign to cut plastic water-bottle waste, a system converting leftover dining hall food into energy, and plans for sustainable procurement policies and local food sourcing. But it is unlikely to reach its target of reducing overall campus waste by 10 percent in 2024.

Thirty-eight years and one day after, Memorial Stadium hosted more than 53,000 people for an Illinois football game and the first-ever Zero Waste Tailgate. This time, we know exactly how much was recycled: more than 1,000 pounds.

A frequent FarmAid musical guest, the late folk singer Pete Seeger, would have approved of that number. One of Seeger’s famous quotes reads just below the email signature of U of I Zero Waste Coordinator Daphne Hulse: “If it cannot be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned, or removed from production.”

It seems that Hulse wants to make sure that everything, not just recyclables, comes full circle.

Hulse, who is part of Facilities & Services (F&S), is an integral part of the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) Zero Waste Team. Its eponymous mission is the most straightforward of any iCAP Team. Getting to that point, though — and thereby helping the campus get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — is anything but. Deciding what is sustainably sourced, changing the habits of the public, and then recycling or composting what is left behind on a campus of more than 50,000 people is no easy feat.

Nevertheless, the Zero Waste Team has been racking up successes. Partnering with iSEE, Coca-Cola, and the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA), Hulse and F&S coordinated two zero waste basketball games in 2022-23 and two zero waste football tailgates last fall. Between the four events, volunteers helped fans recycle 2,560 pounds of bottles and cans. But the biggest takeaway, according to Hulse, is how these events illustrate how campus can “institutionalize sustainable waste management practices” into every major athletic event. Additionally, the nearly 700 (and counting!) reusable water bottle-friendly “hydration stations” across campus also cut waste by providing an alternative to single-use plastic bottles.

Those two efforts combined into “Be Orange, Go Green,” a campaign from iSEE, F&S, and other campus partners that encourages Illini fans, students, faculty, and staff to move away from single-use plastic water bottles. With DIA allowing empty, clear refillable containers into athletic venues newly equipped with hydration stations, nearly every facility on campus — whether used for the academic grind or the athletic gridiron — has the potential to be free of plastic water bottles.

Campus is expanding ways to reuse its waste, too. The university’s Waste Transfer Station has been sorting out recyclables since the ’80s; University Housing’s new “Grind2Energy” systems make energy out of dorm food leftovers instead of just letting them rot in a landfill; and since 2001, the University YMCA and its partners have held an annual “Dump and Run” — a program that puts quality goods discarded during move-out in May into the hands of charitable organizations to be reused — or repurposed by folks moving into new apartments at an annual August sale.

The reason for all these programs is obvious: Everyone wastes — from Swanlund’s reams of paper to Noyes’ lab leftovers. That also means everyone has the opportunity to cut down on their own waste — a process that starts well before anything is actually bought and requires reconsidering what one actually needs.

Not so long ago, the university’s various departments, divisions, offices, and institutes got everything they needed through “Banner” — a campus system that sent out any Purchase Orders (POs) printed out via snail mail to vendors. Because buying in bulk is cheaper, these POs looked more like Santa’s list than a quick request. The 2020 iCAP made a conservative estimate that just the process of buying things for campus used over 75,000 sheets of paper every year.

Enter “iBuy,” a purchasing platform introduced by the University of Illinois System in 2018 that is housed entirely online. Not only does iBuy cut down on waste, but it could also inform university buyers on what option is the most sustainable.

“Something that has been suggested is including information or recommendations within iBuy,” said Hulse, who is developing an Environmentally Preferable Procurement Plan for campus — one of the top priorities for the Zero Waste Team in the Spring 2024 semester. “For example, when you’re looking at a product, you could see if it’s locally recyclable or sourced ethically.”

While this option isn’t available on iBuy (yet), more university buyers are prioritizing sustainability over cost. “I think there’s a lot of interest from staff and faculty who are buying stuff to know that they’re making a choice that is sustainable for campus. We receive a lot of inquiries and get a lot of questions about that,” Hulse said.

In an ideal world, whatever is needed is purchased sustainably, used entirely, then reused or recycled into something else. Of course, that’s rarely the case and waste is bound to be generated. Campus generated 5,846.83 tons of waste during the 2022-23 school year to be exact — the equivalent of about 3,500 mid-sized cars, 1,400 elephants, or 17 Falcon 9 Rockets. Unfortunately, that figure puts campus behind where it needs to be.

In the 2020 iCAP, the latest data available from 2019 clocked campus waste at 5,049 tons. That number set the basis for a 10% reduction by 2024 to 4,544 tons. If campus is to reach that goal by next year, it would need to reduce its current total waste by 22% — nearly a quarter. It is technically possible; the 2022 fiscal year saw just over 5,000 tons of waste, meaning that 2023 could be an outlier. Nevertheless, the university seems unlikely to reach that 4,544-ton objective on time.

How do we rectify this recent increase in campus waste? By improving and increasing its recycling infrastructure, campus can establish a “Zero Waste Culture” which, with a strong enough foothold, can influence individual choice.

Say you just aced an exam and decided to treat yourself with Starbucks at the Illini Union. After savoring your mocha, that one-use cup has become useless garbage. On your way out, you spot a “3 Bin” — a receptacle with three clearly labeled containers to deposit paper, bottles and cans, or “landfill waste.” These types of bins (made out of recycled materials!) are the university’s most effective way of what Hulse described as “intercepting at the source.”

“These three-stream bins work so well because when you have a setup where people have to make a choice about landfilling or recycling, they tend to do better than just random stray bins with no signage,” Hulse said.

As for that Starbucks cup — made of paper, but lined with plastic and stained with coffee and milk — it has to go in the trash. Not great for overall campus waste, but it’s important to at least put it in the right bin. Even better than that would have been to bring your own reusable tumbler or coffee mug (and utensils for that matter) — nearly every café on campus will make your drink in them. After all, as Hulse points out, “recycling is important, and a good baseline for sustainable activity, but challenging ourselves to cut the waste entirely is transformational.”

When you throw away something in a university building, all of it accumulates at the Waste Transfer Station — a collection center unique to the University of Illinois, and one of the few in the country where recyclables are hand-sorted, baled, and sold to offset recycling costs. Aside from construction waste — 50% of which is recycled, by the way — garbage arrives at the station in a tri-color collage. Clear bags denote trash collected in common areas, blue bags from recycling bins, and black bags from bathrooms and labs. Workers painstakingly sort through the clear bags to separate recyclables (paper, cardboard, plastic, and aluminum) from the trash. The black bags go straight to the landfill, along with whatever errant recyclables were thrown in the wrong bin.

Chancellor Robert Jones meets with Zero Waste Coordinator Daphne Hulse (center) and student volunteers at the first tailgate recycling event in September 2023. Credit: Facilities & Services

The best way to make the process less painstaking — and to lighten the load of the Waste Transfer Station’s eight sorters, who can only handle so much — is to do your own sorting on the front end. When recyclables are thrown into the trash on a large scale — at, say, a tailgate — the system that separates what can be salvaged from what can’t is overwhelmed, leading to higher costs and potentially more waste.

To help combat this, iSEE funded a project in early 2023 to upgrade the Waste Transfer Station with an automatic waste classification system. Using machine learning, cameras focused on the waste conveyer belt will be able to recognize six different types of waste. Once the new system is installed, the station should be much more efficient at identifying trash from recyclables and “determining which types of waste are the most prevalent and thus most crucial to cut down on,” according to Hulse.

When people aren’t careless, properly recycling their beer and soda cans in the State Farm Center or using the correct bin for their plastic water bottles during Quad Day, the waste transfer system can function normally. Visiting fans attending Illini games and especially new students during Welcome Week will also realize that they’re attending a university with a large, and growing, culture of Zero Waste.

While establishing that culture is certainly environmentally beneficial, the way it relates to the iCAP’s ultimate goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a little less straightforward. But make no mistake, it is just as impactful. Using less not only reduces waste but is directly related to how many greenhouse gases we emit. Everything has its own carbon cost; when you waste something, you also waste the energy that was expended in extracting, transporting, manufacturing, distributing, and, of course, wasting it.

Nowhere is this truer than with food. When any organic waste ends up just sitting in an open-air landfill, it can let off even more greenhouse gases as it decomposes. “CO2 is indeed one of them,” Hulse said. “But the other specific greenhouse gas with food waste is methane.”

Methane (CH4) warms the planet at 23 times the rate of carbon dioxide. One way to make sure that statistic doesn’t become reality is to only take as much food as you know you can eat. If you eat in the dining halls regularly, the leftover food you leave on the conveyor belt immediately becomes waste — and it adds up quickly.

“Sustainability-wise it’s amazing to reduce food waste, and in terms of our costs it’s also amazing to reduce food waste,” said iCAP Zero Waste Team member Thurman Etchison, University Housing’s Assistant Director of Dining Services’ Facilities and Equipment. “In a regular week during the school year, we’ll see about 20,000 pounds of food waste.” Over a 16-week semester, that clocks in at 320,000 pounds of uneaten and wasted food.

Dining Services has taken action to reduce the environmental cost of food waste. Rather than going straight to the landfill, leftover food from all university dining halls is ground into one of five “Grind2Energy” holding tanks. The resulting, certainly pungent, slurry is sent to the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District, where it is deposited into an anaerobic digester that turns it into fertilizer and, you guessed it, methane.

But this methane does not leak into the atmosphere in the same way as if the food were in a landfill. Instead, the gas is eventually burned to generate energy. The full Grind2Energy cycle also ensures that dining hall food scraps are not wasted but instead used to provide a third of the electricity and half of the heating demand for the Sanitary District — thus reducing the need for other fossil fuels.

Grind2Energy is the best system possible, but not perfect: It still emits greenhouse gases — burning methane results in CO2 — albeit far less potent ones. The best weapons in our arsenal to combat food waste are individual decisions.

There lies the good news amidst all the waste. It’s hard to individually change where you get your energy or make your community more climate-resilient all by yourself. However, minimizing waste, choosing to recycle, and managing food waste are some of the easiest ways an individual can fight climate change.

When that attitude is amplified on an institutional level, nearly anything is possible. For an example, look no further than “The Nation’s Premier College Marching Band,” the Marching Illini. Audition information, drill formations, and sheet music were formerly done on paper for the nearly 400-member organization, but the band is now an entirely paperless operation.

Now that students read music, drill, and check in for attendance on their phones, the Marching Illini save nearly $35,000 a year and thousands more sheets of paper. By rethinking what was necessary, and reevaluating how to reduce waste, the band’s environmental impact shrinks with each game.

Perhaps on some (hopefully soon) future Saturday in the fall, when the Marching Illini take the field at Memorial Stadium, it will be a Zero Waste halftime at a Zero Waste game at a Zero Waste university.

Green Cleaning: Did You Know?

The way we clean our buildings can affect the environment. Some cleaning products can contain toxic chemicals that pollute our water and others labeled as “antibacterial” can kill bacteria integral to ecosystems. That’s why the 2020 iCAP prescribes a “green cleaning program” by 2024 for university buildings.

Last summer, according to Zero Waste Coordinator Daphne Hulse, five buildings on campus began piloting a new cleaning regimen in line with LEED standards. Once results have been evaluated, Hulse said that “the goal is it’s going to be implemented across the rest of campus.”