Commonwealth Campuses

Penn State is a large university with 24 campuses spread across Pennsylvania. The majority of the recommendations throughout this report are focused on the operations of its largest campus, University Park. However, because this is a University-wide task force, it is important to examine waste reduction and materials management at each of the campuses to determine the impact of the task force’s recommendations.

A survey was administered to help task force members better understand the complexities and individual challenges of managing waste across the University system. Prior to developing the survey, initial efforts to research waste management practices at the Commonwealth Campuses led to the conclusion that there is currently no central source for much of this information. Therefore, a secondary purpose for administering the survey was to collect information on waste management practices in a standardized format that could potentially serve as a baseline for future inquires. Much of the survey focused on best practices for reducing solid waste in higher education institutions. These practices were identified through review of applicable literature, sustainability websites of leading universities, as well as institutional reports submitted to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (Stars) Program. Institutional reports reviewed were selected based on institutional characteristics and institutional performance on “Waste Management and Diversion” criteria.

Recommended goals and principles to impact the Commonwealth Campuses’ waste streams:

Short term

  • Determine the impact, if any, of changes in University Park waste management processes on Commonwealth Campuses
  • Asses the feasibility and potential value of adapting recommendations from the overall task force to the Commonwealth Campuses
  • Distribute the Education committee’s plan and materials to the campuses, as they have similar behavioral challenges as at University Park
  • In fall 2019, two pilot studies will be conducted on Green 2 Go containers at two Commonwealth Campuses, collaborating with classes to perform the research on barriers and program improvement.

Long term

  • Provide educational and financial resources to allow flexibility for Commonwealth Campuses to implement waste-reduction initiatives that best fit their needs.
    • Survey results suggested the primary factors impacting waste reduction efforts are widely shared among many of the Commonwealth Campuses. Predominantly among these are financial and human resources constraints. Nearly three-quarters of responding campuses noted such constraints as barriers to reducing solid waste. Similarly, approximately 42 percent of responding campuses identified the provision of funding as how the University could best support their waste reduction efforts.
  • Provide guidance and training opportunities to support the waste-reduction initiatives being pursued at the Commonwealth Campuses.
    • Nearly 62 percent of responding campuses specifically noted Food and Housing Services as an area offering the greatest opportunity for reducing solid waste. Survey results suggest that most campuses would like to do more composting of food and biomass. However, compost systems can be somewhat expensive to operate and maintain while needing a critical mass of materials. These reasons, combined with others, have reduced the prevalence of materials being composted on the campuses. About a quarter of responding campuses also identified education programs as the greatest opportunity for reducing waste.
  • Explore the feasibility of establishing a voluntary group purchasing organization to support procurement of waste-hauling services for multiple campuses.
    • All campuses reported utilizing private companies for transporting solid waste away from campus (as opposed to county/municipal haulers). At least a third of responding campuses noted contracting Waste Management for these services. Since the survey did not include any items that explicitly asked what company manages waste transport, it is very likely that the proportion of campuses contracting with Waste Management is much higher. Respondents from multiple campuses also commented they have only one or two providers to choose from for waste hauling services. Lack of market competition and relatively small campuses sizes presumably limit their abilities to negotiate broader services at reasonable rates.
  • This survey did not collect data on actual costs of recycling and waste management at the campuses, nor the actual volumes of various materials. A future goal could be to determine costs associated with materials management and determine if it is significant enough to warrant additional investment in recycling and composting. Given that the campuses contract with outside haulers for all services they may be too constrained by the current system to make meaningful changes. Further, the capturable volume of recyclables/compostables may be too small to warrant large investments in infrastructure or human resources.

Data collected to identify current practices and develop long-term goals

The Survey of Waste Reduction and Materials Management Practices at Penn State Commonwealth Campuses was intended help task force members better understand the complexities and individual challenges of managing waste across the University system. Topics addressed in the survey included waste collection and transportation, recycling streams and accepted materials, composting, common practices for reducing waste, barriers to and opportunities for reducing waste, and the University’s role in supporting waste reduction efforts at the Commonwealth campuses. The online survey was administered to the Director of Business Services at each campus in mid-August 2018. Respondents representing 20 of the Penn State campuses completed the survey. Results from the survey are summarized below. The full survey can be found in Appendix VI: Survey of Waste Reduction and Materials Management Practices at Penn State Commonwealth Campuses.

Survey Conclusions:

  • Each Commonwealth Campus faces unique challenges in managing solid waste.
  • All campuses are facing challenges related to human behavior (e.g., student and employee) that is inconsistent with recycling objectives, while attempting to mitigate drastic changes in markets for recyclable materials.
  • All campuses appear to be short of funds that could be used for infrastructure improvement, training, etc. that would lead to improved diversion rates. The most frequently cited barrier to advancing waste reduction efforts on campus was financial and/or human resources constraints.
  • Most campuses identified Food and Housing Services as the most promising area for opportunities to reduce solid waste.
  • A major factor that already has or likely will impact waste reduction efforts at campuses across the University system is market shifts resulting from China’s National Sword policy on imports of recyclable materials. Considering the prevalence of Waste Management as the contracted waste hauler among Commonwealth Campuses, it seems very likely that many campuses may soon be faced with changing waste collection policies. For instance, Penn State Erie has been forced to make substantial changes to its recycling collection processes due to policy changes imposed by Waste Management in early 2018. Penn State Harrisburg also noted the challenges it was presented by changes in Waste Management policies. The new realities of the market for recyclables have diminished leadership’s ability to make a “business case” for more comprehensive recycling programs.

The primary challenge to reducing waste across the Commonwealth Campuses is the highly varied needs among them. Each campus contends with different constraints and challenges that could significantly impact the efficacy of any broadly prescribed practice. For this reason, many campus Directors of Business Services expressed a need from the University for both support and flexibility. Providing resources, financial or otherwise, to support waste reduction efforts on a campus by campus basis would require new procedures for assessing the need and potential impact of each proposed project.

As alluded to above, quantifiable returns and impacts of implementing the subcommittees’ recommendations would be dependent on campus investments and need to be analyzed on a case by case basis. For example, survey results suggested that most campuses would like to do more composting of food and biomass. The financial impact of establishing an on-site composting operation would depend on many factors and differ substantially from one location to the next, but would no doubt be expensive if done on a commercial scale. In terms of educational impact, however, many campuses could benefit greatly from such operations assuming a critical mass of faculty and student interest exists to support it.

The formation of a voluntary group purchasing organization for procuring waste-hauling services may have greater potential for positive financial and operational impacts, but again would require an assessment of feasibility and participation interest among the campuses.