Feb. 14, 2020

What’s the best way to divert waste from landfills? Just ask UCalgary Sustainability Certificate students

Campus as a Learning Lab project assesses campus waste sorting processes

Have you met Samson Tsahim? You can catch him in McEwan Hall supervising the new waste sorting stations, installed and managed by the Students’ Union.

These stations are run by a team of trained staff members like Tsahim, who help keep waste from the landfill by ensuring all waste, recycling and compost is disposed of in the correct location. In conjunction with the newly installed in-house composter unit, a landfill reduction of 50 per cent has already been achieved.

Recently, Dr. Tatenda Mambo, PhD, postdoctoral associate in UCalgary’s Sustainability Studies, and Amanda Mosca, engagement co-ordinator, Office of Sustainability, worked together to create a Campus as Learning Lab opportunity for students in the Certificate in Sustainability Studies program to compare different waste sorting processes around campus to see which were most effective at decreasing contamination in our recycling and compost bins.

  • Photo above, from left: Amanda Mosca, Tatenda Mambo and Samson Tsahim at a MacEwan Hall waste sorting station. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Through interviews, data observation and secondary research, “students compared different waste sorting approaches at UCalgary which include staffed waste sorting stations in MacEwan Hall, four-stream waste bins all over campus, and the single compost waste stream implemented in The Dining Centre,” says Mambo.

“When contamination rates in various waste streams are high, it results in materials being sent to the landfill, which defeats the purpose of waste sorting streams. For UCalgary to achieve its goal of diverting 80 per cent of waste from landfill by 2020, a combination of structural and behavioural changes among the campus community are a necessity given the various approaches used on campus.”

“Campus as a Learning Lab allows students to consider complex, real-world issues and aims to address them through experiential learning and focused reflection,” says Mosca. “I would encourage all staff and faculty to consider implementing a Campus as a Learning Lab project into their portfolio. It’s a great way to connect with students who offer diverse perspectives for your initiatives and engage them in experiential learning, while also allowing participants to make meaningful contributions to our campus community.”

The most efficient waste sorting solutions at UCalgary

In Mac Hall, the waste sorting stations operated by employees like Tsahim have reduced the number of times garbage collectors pick up trash from UCalgary. In addition, they take the decision-making out of the hands of the campus community, ensuring that waste placed in these stations is sorted correctly. The Dining Centre takes a slightly different approach, where all items that can be disposed of are organic.

“The students found that when the campus community doesn’t need to make decisions about which bin to place waste into – as seen in Mac Hall and The Dining Centre, the potential for contamination decreases,” says Mambo. “The downside of this approach is that it disengages the community from the waste sorting process and does not empower them to be better waste sorters in contexts where they have to make decisions.”

Going forward, the Students’ Union will work closely with the Office of Sustainability to ensure accurate data for MacEwan Hall and the campus, such as the data collected by the Certificate in Sustainability Studies students, is recorded to assist in future initiatives.

Interested in engaging in a Campus as a Learning Lab project?

While there are still many other questions that could be answered through this project, a sustainability-themed Campus as a Learning project doesn’t need to be waste and recycling focused.

“Sustainability is so much more than waste and recycling, so regardless of your faculty or department there could be a sustainability Campus as a Learning Lab project for you,” says Mosca.

Interested in learning more? Contact sustain@ucalgary.ca.