7 Back-to-School Waste Statistics: How to Avoid Them at Your College

“Welcome back to campus!” You’ll soon be uttering this phrase to newly arrived students and staff – if you aren’t already. As the new academic year kicks off, there’s an undeniable buzz of excitement in the air. New students are arriving, classrooms are getting prepped, and campuses are coming alive after the summer break. But with the back-to-school season also comes a significant surge in waste.

The yearly back-to-school rush causes a significant increase in waste production, including plastic waste from packaging, e-waste from discarded electronics, and paper and cardboard waste from packaging, as well as old textbooks and notebooks. With the volume of waste generated during this time of year – compounded by the consistent waste levels that continue throughout the school year, it can have serious environmental implications if left unchecked.

For higher education leaders, focusing on sustainability, including recycling and waste diversion efforts, is critical. Stakeholders, including students, faculty, and investors, are increasingly concerned about environmental responsibility, and ignoring this concern could negatively affect an institution’s reputation and finances.

Thankfully, there’s much that can be done to combat the alarming statistics. Let’s look at 7 of these data points, and then explore action items to help your university avoid each one.

Back to College Waste By the Numbers

Here are 7 waste statistics related to universities in the United States, and ways to prevent your institution from becoming a contributor:

1. An average college student generates about 640 pounds of solid waste every year.

Waste generation starts from move-in day, so it’s important to encourage students to follow sustainable practices from the start. In addition to having well-placed recycling receptacles in strategic areas throughout university housing and across campus, consider this action item:

Action item Incorporate recycling education into new student orientation. Consider a short, interactive presentation that motivates and educates students about recycling and reuse.

2. U.S. universities only average a 24% recycling rate.

This number is surprisingly low, but it demonstrates how far there is to go when it comes to waste diversion and recycling on university campuses. Whether your institution already has a program in place or is just getting started, consider this action item:

Action item – Hire an external consultant to conduct a waste audit. This will give you a baseline understanding of areas for improvement for your campus’ recycling practices and help you adjust your practices accordingly.

3. The average diversion rate at U.S. universities is 45%. 

The diversion rate includes all types of waste that are diverted away from the landfill, and includes recycling, reuse and composting activities. Again, there’s clear room for improvement here. One type of item that is often discarded by college students is clothing. Consider this action item:

Action item – Implement a targeted clothing recycling program where you place receptacles in university housing for residents to drop their used clothing in (instead of depositing them in the trash). CheckSammy’s Drop Program is one option.

4. U.S. college students contribute more than 200 million tons of waste annually.

Cutting down on the volume of waste starts with education. A comprehensive recycling education program should take into account not just placement of recycling bins, but also instruction about what items can be recycled and how. Try this:

Action item – Designate a “Green Team” on campus that includes faculty, staff, and student representatives. Provide sustainability training to all Green Team members, and align all efforts with residential staff at university housing.

5. A single college cohort at a private university will generate an average of 430,000 plastic bottles per year.

Single-use plastics are the culprit of a significant portion of our waste and pollution challenges today, which is why so many local and municipal governments are passing legislation banning certain types of single-use plastics like bags, straws and bottles. While a comprehensive ban of single-use plastics may not be feasible – yet – for your institution, figure out what is feasible and start there. Try this: 

Action item – Set a goal for your campus to reduce single-use plastic usage by a certain percentage by a certain year. Once you achieve that goal, work towards completely eliminating a certain type of single-use product, like straws or bottles.

6. Cardboard recycling in university housing can lead to $12,000-$20,000 in annual savings.

These savings may be bigger or smaller depending on the size of your campus housing. Think about how many cardboard boxes are discarded during college move-in, from product packaging to boxes students have packed their items in. Chances are at least some of that cardboard will still end up in the trash instead of being recycled. Consider this:

Action item – Designate Green Team representatives to be present during move-in week. Create a schedule with different shifts and train the team members to do rounds of the dorms and help collect and recycle the excess cardboard.

7. 22 million lbs of food is discarded annually on U.S. college campuses. 

Food waste from cafeterias and food service makes up the majority of discarded food on campuses. There is a huge opportunity to divert these excess organics away from the landfill. Consider this:

Action item – Implement a composting initiative or organics recycling program with the help of a specialty recycling company like CheckSammy. These companies have partnerships with anaerobic digestion facilities that can turn organic waste into fuel.

Improving Campus Sustainability Efforts Starts Now

There’s no better time like the present to start improving your institution’s sustainability efforts. If you’re looking for support to develop a custom recycling and waste diversion program, CheckSammy can help. Contact us today to learn more.

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