Recycling and Compost - Progress on Zero Waste at Michigan

Release Date: 

The University of Michigan – Ann Arbor campus is home to over 40,000 students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and nearly 25,000 in combined faculty and staff. Several years ago, the campus established its “2025 Sustainability Goals,” which include specific targets for waste prevention. The primary goal is to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills by 40% below 2006 levels. However, with the rapid growth of U-M’s geographic footprint, no progress has been made and waste levels actually increased, now necessitating a 44% decline by 2025. Frustrating as it may be, there are considerable signs of movement in the right direction, along with a number of highly-engaged student organizations working diligently to address the challenges of waste reduction on such a massive scale. 
On home football Saturdays, Michigan Stadium, “The Big House,” transforms into a zero-waste utopia of over 110,000 fans strong. For the athletic department to accomplish this incredible feat required extensive coordination with food vendors and event staff to guarantee that waste diversion from landfills reaches at least 90% through the combination of recycling and composting (more on this below). Michigan Stadium has offered recycling for more than 20 years and with the addition of compostable materials, Michigan football fans (and visiting fans, too) witness first-hand how impactful and effortless waste reduction can be.
Thanks to the commitment of students, faculty and staff, and campus visitors, the University of Michigan has collected 1,100 pounds of compost in 2016 and achieved a campus-wide recycling rate of 29%. Progress is rewarding, but for these numbers to continue improving, we need everyone on board. Single-stream recycling and composting are highly material-sensitive, meaning that if too much of the improper items are discarded in a composting or recycling receptacle, the entire bag is deemed to be contaminated and therefore must be sent to the landfill. Given the relatively high potential for contamination, it takes an extremely connected and coordinated effort to eliminate the maximum amount of waste from landfills. In nearly all U-M facilities look for new informative signage detailing where to place the appropriate materials. Composting occurs in all residential dining units and throughout M|Dining markets and cafes.
While it’s great to have recycling widely available and composting rapidly expanding across campus, the best approach to waste prevention is simply reducing the number of single-use packaged products purchased and used. An easy initial target is cutting down on beverage containers. Reusable water bottles and coffee mugs are readily available and inexpensive. With hundreds of effortless water bottle refill stations positioned all over campus, carrying a reusable bottle is both sustainable and cost-effective. Generate additional cost savings by bringing along a reusable mug to your favorite local coffee shop and receiving a few dimes off the menu price. After completing these beginner tasks, consider purchasing food and drinks in bulk, effectively decreasing the frequency of waste associated with the same amount of product consumed.
Once you have a handle on these University of Michigan sustainability basics, become a self-proclaimed campus sustainability warrior. Start by visiting the Planet Blue website ( and going through the Planet Blue Ambassador modules. Here, you will learn a whole lot more about the five pillars of the U-M sustainability plan (food, water, energy, waste, and community) through a short and interactive series of informative modules. Then, take what you learn and share it far and wide. The more members of the campus community aware of opportunities to engage in waste prevention efforts, the greater collective impact we will have.
Hopefully, this brief overview of the University of Michigan’s sustainability programs and goals has been helpful. If you are eager to learn a bunch more, explore and while you’re there, browse the list of sustainability-oriented student organizations and consider joining. It’s one of the best ways to contribute to the progress taking place across campus every day.
Go Blue!