Anastasia Nicole held up a small, roughly cereal box-sized black trash can. It was mostly filled with granola bar wrappers. The contents of the bin — composed of mostly these wrappers — is her entire two-weeks-worth of trash.

“I mean, I’m a zero-waster, but I get hungry at my desk,” Nicole said. 

Nicole is Cal Poly’s full-time Zero Waste Coordinator, working for the university’s sustainability department. Since she started at Cal Poly in 2018, Nicole and the rest of the sustainability team have taken on the long-term goal of creating a campus that produces zero waste.

The steps to get there are numerous and the process is tedious. But with the new CalRecycle Grant, the university is one step nearer. 

The CalRecycle Grant awarded Cal Poly close to $225,000 to direct toward waste management efforts, including new “big belly” triad bins for trash, education and social media, new recycling and composting signage and funding for an expanded student ambassador staff.

The new “big belly” bins earn their name for a few reasons – one being they eat up a large portion of the grant money. They are solar powered trash compactors, about the size of the current bins on campus, but can hold up to three times the amount of trash. About a dozen are expected to be found around campus in summer 2020. 

The $225,000 from the state comes from a pool of money it collects from unredeemed deposits on recycled bottles. In other words, when someone does not collect the $0.05 or $0.10 they could make each time they recycle a bottle or can at a recycling facility, the money, by law, goes straight into a pool of money the state redistributes to schools and communities. 

It is another effort to make it more clear to students what exactly is and is not recyclable or compostable. 

When a student is holding the remnants of their Starbucks breakfast with the choice to either recycle, compost or landfill their waste, the entire cup often ends up in one of the three. But the cup is recyclable and the lid and heat sleeve are not. It can be difficult to remember what goes where, Nicole said.

In collaboration with Cal Poly’s student-run Zero Waste Club, the sustainability department performs quarterly trash audits, where samples of waste are sorted through to determine what items students are most commonly misplacing. 

The past years have shown high levels of cross-contamination between the bins, resulting in the local recycling and composting facilities being unable to process Cal Poly’s waste, effectively diverting all of it to a landfill. In 2017, Cal Poly sent nearly 2,000 tons of waste to the landfill and only 750 tons to composting and recycling facilities. 

In 2017, Cal Poly sent nearly 2,000 tons of waste to the landfill and only 750 tons to composting and recycling facilities. Von Balanon | Mustang News

Nicole said she hopes the new signage and outreach program will change this and diminish contamination to the point where Cal Poly can start sending these to facilities to be properly processed. 

The contamination on campus, unlike the overall contamination in the state of California, favors recycling and composting, meaning students more frequently place items meant for the landfill in the recycle than the other way around. More than 70 percent of the waste Californians send to landfills can actually be recycled or composted, according to a CalRecycle study done in 2016. But on campus, the problem is flipped. 

“When we [compare] a bag from a public bin and compare it to a bag from Kennedy Library, there’s a lot of recycling in the garbage in the public bins,” Nicole said. “But in Kennedy Library, in some cases, there were no recyclables in the garbage whatsoever … It’s not that [students] don’t care, it’s just that they don’t know. ” 

However, contamination is contamination no matter where waste is mistakenly placed. But it does show students are making the effort, they just need more guidance to properly distinguish what falls in each category, she said. 

“With contamination in composting and recycling, I don’t really think it’s gotten any better,” Zero Waste Club President and third year biology major Dylan Stephens said. “I don’t think the [current] signs make any difference.”

Stephens performed a study last fall to test how well students sort their trash first with no signs, then with the current signs indicating the items that go in each bin, then with a Zero Waste student ambassador offering to help with sorting. Stephens found that the resulting contamination was similar both with signs and without any signs at all. 

The new signage is intended to fix this. Stephans said it will hopefully make the deconstruction of the coffee cup much more clear – no more “vague recycling symbols,” but uniform pictures of specific items allowed in the respective bins. Glass bottles, plastic bottles with thin necks, metal cans, and clean paper for recycling, and only food waste – excluding “compostable” forks and plates – for compost. Everything else in the landfill. 

“Ideally, the students couldn’t even make a wrong decision, because they have a plate, and they only have to put it in the dish box,” Stephens said. “Cal Poly should be trying to avoid, in the production side, single use plastics.” 

Until that happens, however, student-run clubs like the Zero Waste Club are working with the university’s sustainability staff to figure out ways to influence the student body. 

Much of the outreach and education for sustainability, Nicole said, is done with the help of student clubs like the Surfrider Club or the Zero Waste Club. The CalRecycle Grant provides the funds for more student ambassadors, who will kick-start spreading the information in a simple way to the student body. 

And there is another powerful trend in the works on campus and nationwide that has the potential to drop the school’s waste production in half: reuse is “going to steamroll,” Nicole said. The process will become a whole lot simpler when students don’t have to decide which half of their disposable coffee cup goes where. 

“Yes, I’m optimistic,” Nicole said. “Campus-wide, consistent messaging – it will make a difference.”

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