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UC Berkeley needs to work towards zero waste by 2020

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MARCH 08, 2019

A UC Berkeley student picks up new clothes from the Amazon store and throws away all the packaging it came in, a staff administrator throws out their leftovers in the single-use plastic food clamshell while working at their desk, a faculty member bought their morning coffee in a disposable cup, and a visitor purchases a Cal souvenir the cashier puts in a disposable plastic bag.

Unfortunately, all of these occurrences are all too common on campus and make our goal of zero waste by 2020 seem almost impossible and a goal that many people consider to be too lofty.

The UC took a visionary and leadership stance in 2003 by setting this zero waste by 2020 goal, which was included in the UC Presidential Policy on Green Building Design and Clean Energy Standards. When I first started working on the zero waste by 2020 goal, I never imagined today being only one year away from that goal we set. As 2020 fast approaches, however, how does our campus intend to get to zero waste?

One encouraging piece of news in reaching our zero-waste goals is reported in the recent article in The Daily Californian titled “UC Berkeley environmental impact decreases despite growing student population, campus report finds” that says despite increasing student enrollment numbers, the campus’s environmental footprint has decreased in recent years.

UC Berkeley’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Report recently publicized that from 2004 to 2016, the campus’s generation of solid waste has followed the same declining environmental impact trend and decreased by nearly 33 percent. More importantly, the article also points out that the decrease can be attributed, in part, to the increase in administrative support in funding and zero-waste projects.

As a starting point to demonstrate that zero waste is achievable on campus, two years ago, the Haas School of Business and UC Berkeley Facilities Services initiated the U.S. Green Building Council’s TRUE Zero Waste certification for Connie and Kevin Chou Hall.

This year, Chou Hall not only obtained zero-waste certification, but it also became the first academic building in the nation to achieve a platinum-level certification. The building does not have any public trash bins. By utilizing education and outreach efforts, we instilled a behavior among building users to “pack in, pack out” waste. This demonstration of best practices has now become a beacon for the campus to achieve zero waste.

A fundamental shift in the ideology surrounding zero waste is that it’s not just about recycling, composting and sorting the right materials into the right bin. Even if an individual sorts their materials perfectly, recycling every can and bottle, composting every food scrap and sending very little to the landfill, that isn’t really zero waste.

The person with perfect sorting habits is also still generating large volumes of materials daily; whether it be in recycling, compost or landfill, their total material production could still be quite high. The more important strategy to zero waste is reducing and reusing so we are not creating the waste in the first place.

A fantastic example is the city of Berkeley recently passing a groundbreaking ordinance aimed at reducing single-use disposables and encouraging reuse in food facilities. In order for UC Berkeley to reach our zero waste by 2020 goals, these are the bold next steps our students and administration must also adopt. In fact, as an institution of higher learning and the No. 1 public university in the world, we should now go even further in leading the way to eliminating the use of single-use disposable plastics and other landfill items on campus.

There has been a wealth of limited organizational and grassroots efforts to initiate zero-waste efforts so far, but broad-based campus support for the movement is still lacking. If UC Berkeley hopes to achieve zero waste, then students, staff, faculty, visitors and the whole campus community must all realize their significant impacts in their contributions to zero waste.

A UC Berkeley student stops by the ReUSE store and Freecycle days to get clothes and school supplies, a staff administrator pulls out their reusable lunch box during a meeting with their staff, a faculty member brings their Cal Zero Waste Refreshing Refills mug for their morning coffee, and a visitor brought their own reusable bag when they purchased their Cal souvenir. This is what it will take every day as a regular occurrence to create a zero-waste village at UC Berkeley.


Lin King worked at UC Davis for 15 years as the waste reduction and recycling manager and has been the zero waste manager for UC Berkeley for the past eight years. He is also the vice chair of the newly created Zero Waste Campus Council under the California Resource Recovery Association.

MARCH 08, 2019