Graphic by Matty Flader / Photo Reporter and Elisabetta Paiano / Production Editor
The Facilities Services department at McMaster released a broad waste audit of the university in February 2020. The audit details the amount of waste produced in the 2018 year and provides plans to reduce waste for the future.
While waste may not be at the forefront of students’ minds, McMaster’s environmental impact on the Hamilton community is significant in terms of waste generated, setting institutional standards and research in sustainability. Considering the city’s declaration of a climate emergency and the recent scandal of waste water pollution in Chedoke Creek, sustainability has become a local priority and McMaster needs to do its part.
The university has taken some steps to begin reducing its waste and become a more sustainable institution.
According to the Waste report completed by the Waste Reduction Group Inc, a third party consultant, samples of waste were collected across the university to assess composition and contamination.
Overall, the audit determined that in 2018 McMaster diverted 54 per cent of waste through recycling and composting programs, a 8.5 per cent improvement from 2017, but still below the provincial goal of 60 per cent. For comparison, Brock University‘s diversion rate for the same year was 73.3 per cent, according to an audit completed by the same company. The audit found organic material such as food waste in garbage cans across campus and suggested that McMaster expands its composting programs, which students have long called for.
The biggest culprits noted by the waste audit were the Student Centre, Mills Library, and Brandon Hall.
McMaster has been working to improve recycling programs, particularly by moving from a single-stream recycling program to one where students are expected to separate out paper and plastics.
Carlos Figueira, director of custodial, grounds, logistics and mail services for McMaster, highlighted some of the improvements the department has implemented. Signage has been an ongoing problem on campus, with the prevailing “This, That, and the Other” system becoming increasingly outdated and confusing for waste sorting-savvy students and staff. Another evolving issue is the ever-changing containers that vendors bring to campus, since each one has different materials it is difficult for staff to keep students informed on which are or aren’t recyclable.
With contamination rates that don’t meet the provincial standard, students clearly are still unsure of what to do with their waste. Kate Whalen, the senior manager of academic sustainability programs, said that students brought concerns to a recent panel hosted by the MSU club Zero Waste McMaster. Students expressed a desire to contribute to mitigating climate change through individual practices, but had questions about fundamental practices. Her suggestion: students should join up and find ways to make change.
“There’s so much opportunity for students to get involved and talk about aligning with your values—to find a group or groups of like minded students [. . .] who are organizing within themselves,” said Whalen.
One group of McMaster staff heading up improvements is the newly established cross-department Sustainability Council started by Debbie Martin, associate vice-president of facilities services. The council works on a variety of initiatives including an extension of the student-led trash to treasure initiative. Whalen helps chair the group, which aims to divert I.T. waste produced at McMaster. Old tech is collected on campus, refurbished, and either donated, sold, or recycled.
Aside from the Sustainability Council, Whalen noted that there are lots of other ways students and McMaster as a whole can help reduce waste. The first step is a change of mindset: we need to move away from just focusing on recycling and towards a more holistic approach.
“the Three R’s… we rhyme it off the top of our heads. You’re all taught this. But there’s actually a very specific order: reduce, then reuse, then recycle.”
Figueira agreed that students and staff need to reduce the amount of single use items coming onto campus. He encouraged avoiding all plastics and choosing reusable containers instead.
Along with reducing waste, Whalen also noted a need for rethinking how we view environmental impact. She said students are eager to make individual changes, but it can be demoralizing when the problem seems too big or no solution seems quite right.
Change is difficult, but Whalen suggested students take up a simple approach: “doing your best with what you have where you are. Focusing on that.”
Students seem interested in taking up zero waste practices as a way to make small actions have a big impact.
Josephine Agueci, president of Zero Waste McMaster, explained that the zero-waste philosophy encourages individuals to adopt sustainable practices to lower the single-use materials they consume.
“[Zero waste McMaster} strives to promote low waste, stainable, conscious living for students on campus and in the community. Basically we want to provide the education… the first step is always educating yourself and figuring out why this resonates with you. Like why do you want to make these changes? Why is it actually important? ‘Cause otherwise, changing your habits is really difficult” said Agueci.
As a fourth year student herself Agueci knows that it can be challenging for students to make sustainable choices.
“It’s just taking little steps and doing little making little changes in your own life. Perfection is not like what we’re trying to strive for,” said Agueci.
The McMaster community has made headway in creating more sustainable practices on campus. Still more work is needed to meet the 60 per cent contamination rate goal set out by the province. Student and staff organizations on campus, like the sustainability committees and Zero Waste McMaster are bringing together individuals interested in waste reduction to build a more sustainable McMaster.