Students at the University of Colorado Boulder have been the heart of the university’s recycling program since 1976. While the Environmental Center (E-Center) was started six years prior, it wasn’t until a group of environmentally passionate individuals gathered the necessary funding that recycling became a priority on campus.
They first set up in the areas that generated the most waste and put dumpsters in a parking lot to sort through the materials and dispose of anything harmful to the environment. Since then, student involvement has remained the driving force of the recycling center at CU Boulder.
In recent years, CU has made “zero waste” a campus-wide goal. This requires transitioning from a traditional waste disposal system — garbage and wastewater predominantly — to what’s known as a cyclical resource management system where materials return safely to either the environment or back into the industrial cycle to be used again.
CU Boulder has a goal to redirect 90 percent of materials away from the landfill by the year 2020. To do so, the E-Center uses student-powered teams to go out and educate other students on how to reduce, reuse and recycle.
The Zero Waste Outreach team at CU Boulder has become one of the leading forces in this mission by hosting events like Scrape Your Plate and I Scream for Recycling.
“It was progressive students who saw this need and created the program,” says Dan Baril, recycling program manager at the E-Center. “It was built off the back of students, and we like to keep our students integrated into the recycling program even to this day.”
While students working and volunteering at the E-Center have the opportunity to work in various areas, most students start out on the line at the Recycling Operations Center on Colorado Avenue. Here, students sort through materials to clear the recycling stream of anything that could contaminate the process.
Chicago-native Hanna Danecker, a senior in environmental studies with a minor in sociology, has been a member of the E-Center for a year and a half. By starting as a sorter on the line and then becoming the special materials manager,Danecker says her involvement with the E-Center is a productive way to build a career aimed at creating food justice in marginalized communities.
The monopolization of the agricultural industry has affected low-income communities the most. With these neighborhoods often located in food deserts, affordable, healthy food is often inaccessible. But food justice programs give these communities the power to grow, sell and eat healthy food.
As a volunteer during the summer for Gardeneers, a Chicago program working with schools to create garden education programs, Danecker strives to incorporate her knowledge of environmental studies and sociology to contribute in the fight against the structural problem of food injustice.
An interest in serving communities is also a driving motive for CU senior Lupe Avalos. Although majoring in technology arts and media, Avalos has integrated her environmental awareness with her field of study by creating informative videos and games for the public about recycling and composting. Last semester, she developed an online game where players can toss common items seen on campus into the landfill, recycling or compost basket. She also created a short video explaining the importance of zero waste and how the concept can be incorporated into everyday life.
Avalos has held various positions at the E-Center but does most of her work with the Zero Waste Outreach team. She’s involved with ECO Visits, a free service helping students living off-campus reduce their energy bills by installing energy saving devices like LED light bulbs, pipe insulators and water-smart showerheads. And she helps with Foundations for Leaders Organizing Water Sustainability (FLOWS), which allows CU students to help low-income communities in Boulder adopt sustainable lifestyle behaviors.
Programs like these are effective in achieving energy-efficient methods and green-building practices, but a lot of our waste comes from what we end up disposing from our food plate and the materials we use to consume our food. Students like Zach Huey have also made it their responsibility to educate staff and students on campus about the consequences of food waste.
Although Huey has always been environmentally conscious, his work in the food industry really highlighted the amount of food waste we generate. While still a first-year student in political science, Huey is aiming to implement policies that combat climate change, and organize social groups to educate the public about recycling and compost.
“The real issue with waste in society is that it’s not made a public issue — it’s a personal thing,” Huey says. “I go out to eat, I get food and I throw my waste away. Other people do what they want with their waste, but waste is still everywhere — on the street, in people’s houses, on campus. So I don’t think it’s a private issue and it needs to be addressed.”
Huey is actively involved in various outreach events in the dining halls and the University Memorial Center (UMC), making sure fellow students and staff know in which bin to toss their waste. In the dining halls, he works with the Zero Waste Outreach team for events like Scrape Your Plate Day, where volunteers direct students to dispose leftover food into compost bins. Students and staff are able to witness how much food is wasted when absentmindedly grabbing larger portions, as the volunteers weigh the food scraped into the compost bins.
“The real issue with waste in society is that it’s not made a public issue — it’s a personal thing.”
During one program called I Scream for Recycling, students pledge to “reduce, reuse and recycle” by adopting eco-friendly practices such as printing only when necessary and bringing non-plastic bags on shopping trips. All who agree to pledge can either shout, “Go now and recycle, do it for the children!” or share their act on social media to receive a free treat from Boulder Ice Cream.
The Lug Your Mug event, also run by the Zero Waste Outreach team, encourages students to ditch disposable cups and instead bring their own non-plastic ones to receive free coffee on campus. With students running on little sleep and high stress, coffee cups made out of polylactic acid (PLA) plastic are one of the most predominant items on college campuses, but they are also one of the most wasteful because they are non-recyclable.
With these programs and many others, the E-Center provides all its volunteers a chance to pursue their interests. For some, like Michelle Roby, that includes behind-the scenes work on awareness and conservation conferences. As a junior majoring in environmental studies and Spanish, Roby is most interested in programs like Bioneers, where innovators from all over the world gather at CU Boulder to discuss practical solutions to environmental matters.
Roby enjoys working at the E-Center because it is a great way to stay informed on what the campus is doing in partnership with the City of Boulder. As an active member of the Zero Waste Outreach team, Roby has helped those living in multi-family units understand the zero waste ordinance the City recently made mandatory, requiring recycling and composting be available for all tenants.
“We have a fresh mindset,” Roby says of students working through the E-Center. “We understand how students work and are able to come with fresh ideas on how to go at different things.”
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Hanna’s last name. We apologize for any inconvenience.