Welcome week challenge encourages new students to think about sustainability

| Judy Berthiaume

When UW-Eau Claire’s 2,000+ new freshmen move into the dorms next week they’ll be figuring out all sorts of things like the shortest route to that 8 a.m. class, how to climb the hill without looking like they’re out of breath and where to put the futon in their new living space.

One of their fellow Blugolds wants to make sure they also know how to best sort their trash so it doesn’t harm the environment.

Lily Strehlow, a senior economics and liberal studies major, will lead UW-Eau Claire’s first “Waste and Sustainability Challenge,” a weeklong competition for new Blugolds that aims to help them think seriously about sustainability and to embrace a zero-waste philosophy.

“UW-Eau Claire has fantastic waste infrastructure, including compost, recycling and e-waste recycling,” Strehlow says, noting that the campus also recently added plastic bag recycling. “Davies Center and Hilltop also purchase a variety of products that are compostable and recyclable.

“The opportunity to reduce our landfill waste stream is already here, but our waste auditing research shows that students aren’t paying attention to the different options available for their waste. That’s why our first move is to start developing a sustainable sense of place with a waste training competition.”

The welcome week competition — created by Strehlow as part of a summer research project with Dr. Scott Clark, associate professor of geology — will feature student teams competing against each other to properly sort waste items commonly found in Davies Center.

The challenge will run from 1-4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 2, in the backyard of Horan Hall on upper campus; from 8-10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 4, during the Library After Dark activities; from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, during the CookOUT behind Horan Hall on upper campus; and from 3-4:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, on the Towers Field on upper campus.

She will be there to lead discussions about concepts like the importance of getting as much food waste as possible into the compost bin, says Strehlow, a native of Golden Valley, Minnesota.

The goal, she says, is to have the competition continue and grow every fall as freshmen arrive on campus. After a few years, all students should be more aware of sorting etiquette, she says.

The new students also will take a pre- and post-survey so researchers can gauge the effectiveness of the competition in teaching them about sorting waste, Strehlow says.

“We hope to develop a sustainable mindset and good waste-sorting habits among first-year students that will stay with them until they graduate,” Strehlow says of the competition. “Through analyzing the survey data, we hope to gain insight into how to nudge UWEC students toward properly sorting waste.”

International students also will have opportunities to discuss waste during their orientation, she says.

Hopefully, Clark says, the competition will help students establish good habits while also educating the campus community about the zero-waste philosophy.

“Human nature leads us to frequently follow an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality,” Clark says. “Projects like what Lily is working on are important for getting people to think about real-world issues such as what happens to the stuff you put into the trash or a recycle bin.”

Clark began his campus waste research several years ago after hearing that the local landfill, Seven Mile Creek municipal solid waste landfill, was going to stop accepting compost from UW-Eau Claire because there was too much contamination of non-compostable items in its bags of compost.

“It’s great for our campus and community that the landfill has a composting area that can accept all types of food waste, but it is impossible for them to give away, let alone sell, compost that is littered with bits of plastic and other waste,” Clark says.

For several years, Clark and student researchers have conducted waste audits in Davies Center, which have identified gaps in student knowledge and attentiveness when it comes to sorting their waste into the compost, recycling or landfill bins.

“Our multiyear study shows that even though Davies has recycling and compost bins next to the trash bins, both are consistently underutilized,” Clark says. “For example, over 80% of food waste gets dumped in the trash bin when all of it could go into the compost bin, and less than 1/3 of recyclable items make it into the recycling bin.

“Many recyclable and compostable food containers are used as convenient ways to move all waste from the tables to the bins and then the containers and all of the mixed waste in them get tossed into the landfill bin.”

The issue has both environmental and financial implications, Clark says.

“Our campus produces a lot of waste and the landfill only has so much more space where they can store new waste,” says Clark. “Once the landfill is full and no longer able to accept waste, where will it go? The number of municipal solid waste landfills in Wisconsin has been declining for years. Currently, the next nearest municipal solid waste landfills are in Rusk, Marathon, Wood and La Crosse counties. The costs of transporting UWEC waste to any of those landfills would have to be passed on to us and to everyone else in Eau Claire.

“Cutting back on the amount of waste sent to our landfill is in the long-term financial interests of campus as this will extend the life of the landfill so that the city doesn’t need to commission a new landfill or pay to ship the waste to another county.”

Making changes to reduce contributions to climate change and other types of pollution also is an issue of equity, says Strehlow, who may pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

“Properly recycling our e-waste so it is not dumped in the 'global south,' reducing the waste we send to landfills — which statistically are more likely to be built in low-income neighborhoods — and campaigning for products that are better for the environment are part of what this university stands to do with zero-waste implementation,” Strehlow says.

Strehlow, whose liberal studies degree program is titled “Environmental policy and water quality,” became interested in the zero-waste philosophy after taking a water resources course taught by Clark.

“We toured the landfill, and in class he mentioned waste auditing in Davies,” Strehlow says. “I thought digging through the trash sounded fun, and the scale of the landfill shocked me, so I asked to be on the waste team the following fall.”

At the same time, the Student Office of Sustainability was discussing making zero waste a campus goal, but it was struggling to begin a campaign around the concept without the additional support of a campus sustainability coordinator, Strehlow says.

This summer, Strehlow and Clark wrote a grant to get the project off the ground.

“Our goal for UW-Eau Claire is to adopt a zero-waste philosophy,” Strehlow says. “Our grant has two main components: Instilling a sustainable sense of place among first-year students by teaching them how to sort waste properly; and creating a road map on zero-waste for the Student Office of Sustainability and UW-Eau Claire to refer to as they implement sustainable changes on campus.”

Is zero waste an achievable goal at UW-Eau Claire?

Sort of, says Strehlow.

“Zero waste sounds intimidating, even impossible because technically it is impossible,” Strehlow says. “The packaging and materials that compose the things we buy cannot easily be recycled or composted. Many products must be landfilled. That’s why we’ve defined our zero-waste goal as reducing UWEC’s landfill waste stream as much as possible. We’re also exploring what we can do to encourage the companies we buy from to change their product production process enough to make product disposal a simple and eco-friendly process.

“Zero waste is not only an end-of-life ideal, but also considers the life cycle of a product from cradle to grave, and it encourages reductions in consumption. One way to understand this is to add the words ‘redesign’ and ‘refuse’ before the classic ‘reduce, reuse and recycle.’”

Strehlow believes the welcome week challenge and other efforts by the research team to educate students and others will make a lasting difference at UW-Eau Claire.

“Eco-friendly actions take time and coordination, especially when it comes to implementing them on a university level,” Strehlow says. “I’m excited to contribute to the work started by Dr. Clark and one of his students, and I hope to leave behind an easily understood idea of what comes next for zero-waste implementation on campus.”

Understanding the zero-waste philosophy is more important than ever, Clark says.

Since China and other countries now are rejecting recycled plastics from the United States because it’s too contaminated to be economically recycled, everyone must take a serious look at how we approach recycling, Clark says.

“We need to effectively educate people on how to recycle appropriately, and that means possibly moving away from the convenience of single-stream recycling to cut down on the contamination that leads to so many recyclable items ultimately going to a landfill,” Clark says, adding that he also wants people to reduce how many plastic containers they purchase and then toss into the recycling bin after just one use.

Strehlow — who hopes to work in the corporate sustainability field helping companies make sustainable changes to their products, shipping and manufacturing techniques — is grateful to be part of research that gives her space to pursue valuable learning opportunities.

“Research is something I love because I’m paid to learn the nuances of what I’m most passionate about, while producing something that is useful to my community,” Strehlow says. “It gives me in-depth experience working on sustainability projects, which will be useful in my profession.”

Photo caption: Dr. Scott Clark and senior Lily Strehlow are working to educate new students about how to properly separate their trash so it doesn’t harm the environment.