A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Campus Waste Audit: Part 1 The Set Up

On a crisp Tuesday morning in February, I was able to join Anya Dale and Alison Richardson up on north campus to witness part of the large-scale waste audit they have been organizing. A waste audit is a way to determine how much waste is being produced, what types of waste are being generated, and which bins—landfill, recycling, or compost—people are putting the waste into. This information is what guides our waste reduction programs and goal setting on campus. Through seeing the piles of waste the hired consultants were starting to sort into dozens of different categories and getting to ask Anya and Alison about the whole process, I learned a ton about the behind-the-scenes logistics and strategy that go into this work—so read below if you’re curious to learn a little more about what goes into waste reduction efforts here at U-M. 

Kelly: We’ve worked together a lot over the years, but for our readers who haven’t had a chance to interact with you yet, what is your role in sustainability efforts here at U-M? 

Anya: I lead the Waste Reduction Team within the Office of Campus Sustainability. We’re the team that does all the compost and recycling programs on campus and educates the campus community about them. 

Alison: I’m a member of the Waste Reduction Team, and my work focuses mainly on recycling. Over the past several months, I have been helping to lead the logistics of this waste audit. Prior to that, I co-led a waste reduction working group with one of our colleagues, Nicole Berg. That was a group of campus stakeholders who were asked to propose new waste reduction targets for the Ann Arbor campus.

Kelly: Why are you all doing this large-scale waste audit? What do you hope to learn from it?

Anya: We’re coming up very quickly on the deadline for our 2025 Campus Sustainability Goals, so we’re doing this audit to determine an updated baseline of waste generation on campus. The last time we did a large audit like this, as opposed to occasional audits of individual buildings, was around 2012, and that was before composting was rolled out across campus. 

Alison: So in order to propose new waste reduction targets, the working group identified that it would be essential to do an updated waste audit first to determine where we are at right now and what might be realistic and challenging.

Kelly: So once you realized this audit was essential, when did the prep work for this audit start and what all was involved? 

Alison: We started working on the logistics in the early fall. We planned what the process would look like and determined the scope we needed this audit to be. We also worked with Procurement Services to hire a consultant to conduct the audit. We then refined what categories we would need to sort the waste into. That is important because, when the audit is complete, we hope to have data that will inform our procurement practices. While it is waste now, most of this material started out as something someone purchased on campus.  

Kelly: Can you tell me a bit more about the different categories you are sorting the waste into?

Alison: We have things broken down by compost, recycling, and landfill—the three bin types we have on campus. Within these three waste streams, the waste is then further broken down by specific material type (paper, plastics, etc.). In addition to that, we also have the waste sorted by what type of building it came from. The five building types we’re looking at in this audit are: 

  • residence halls, 
  • unions/libraries, 
  • classroom buildings,
  • administrative buildings, and 
  • lab/research buildings. 

We’re also identifying the main types of contamination in the different bins—basically what items are most commonly being disposed of improperly. For instance, if a lot of recyclable items are ending up in the landfill bins, we need to know a little more detail on what those items are—paper, cardboard, to-go food containers, cans, etc.—in order to try and change up our education efforts and procurement practices to stop that from happening.

The scene at the Waste Management Services warehouse at the start of the sort.

Kelly: Who all has been involved in this effort? 

Alison: Procurement, as we mentioned, was involved from the beginning. Our Office of Campus Sustainability team is leading the logistics. Sam Moran and all of the staff with Waste Management Services have been key partners. For this audit, we needed the waste to be collected in specific routes and done separately from the usual waste collection. In some locations, we even needed to replace compactors with collection carts. Custodial Services was involved in collecting waste in bags labeled by building type. Student Life Facilities was also involved, enabling us to include residence hall and union type buildings. Lastly Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) is the consultant we hired to conduct the sort over the next few days and the subsequent data processing. 

Kelly: Where on campus did you all collect the waste from for the audit? 

Alison: We collected waste from 24 buildings at 14 different loading docks. Waste from some of these buildings is taken to a shared dock area where waste from several buildings is collected. 

Anya: Part of the question when Alison was setting up this audit was which docks to use to get the best variety in the sample to represent the rest of campus. 

Kelly: There’s clearly a lot that goes into this, several stakeholders, lots of logistics, but what is the most challenging part of conducting a waste audit like this?

Alison: The logistical coordination. There are lots of moving pieces, and many people who have to do their specific part at a specific time in the project in order for it all to work. Plus there are layers of communication. Because of the scale and number of people involved, it’s difficult to communicate directly with everyone or get everyone into a room before the audit happens. 

Kelly: I know that sometimes waste audits turn up particularly unusual items. As RRS is starting to sort the waste here today, what is the weirdest thing that’s been found during this waste audit so far?

Alison: Two perfectly good ceramic plates and some metal forks. Sometimes it’s curious how perfectly good items will end up in the landfill. 

Three RRS staff sort through a compost bin for contamination—creatively using the two ceramic plates they found.

Kelly: When will you all get the data back from this audit, and what do you anticipate it will say?

Alison: We should receive the initial data sometime in March from RRS. Then it will take some additional analysis and consideration to figure out what it all means for our efforts going forward. 

Anya: At a high level, we’ll learn our current diversion and capture rates. Our diversion rate is a measure of how much waste we prevented from going to the landfill by putting it into recycling or compost instead. We want our diversion rate to be increasing over time, meaning we are purchasing and disposing of more recyclable and compostable materials instead of single-use items that must be landfilled. Our capture rate tells us, of all the recyclable and compostable waste out there, how much of it are we properly capturing in the correct recycling and compost bins. If we are collecting 90% of what is recyclable in the recycle bin, that would be excellent. 

Alison: We also hope to learn which individual categories of items will be most impactful for us to focus our efforts on and in what areas of campus to do so. Depending on what the data say, we may want to try new pilot recycling programs for particular items like glass, we may want to expand compost collection in certain areas of buildings where it is not yet available, we may identify potential adjustments to make in partnership with Procurement, and we’ll likely gain information that informs what we emphasize in our education campaigns about waste and recycling. There’s a whole lot we can glean from this data and we’re really looking forward to playing around with it. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this story when Alison and Anya share some the findings from this waste audit and what it means for waste reduction efforts on campus. 

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