Picture this: you’re a first year at new student orientation, fresh-faced and ready to begin your new life as a college student. You’re wandering around the Field House, trying to figure out what exactly it is that you’re supposed to be doing while getting bombarded on all sides with free swag that you’re only semi-sure you actually want. As you’re registering, someone who looks as if they have authority hands you a water bottle and tells you that RIT is working toward becoming a water bottle-free campus.

This is probably one of the first exposures the average RIT first year has with the Institute’s various sustainability programs, but it certainly won’t be the last — RIT prides itself on its constant efforts to become a more sustainable campus. One of its newest initiatives isthe fledgling zero-waste program at the Gene Polisseni Center, which is led by Enid Cardinal and a team of RIT students.

What does “Zero Waste” Actually Mean?

It sounds straightforward, but in reality “zero waste” does not mean that no waste is generated at all.

“It’s 90 percent diversion rate from a landfill, is the industry standard,” explained Enid Cardinal, the senior sustainability advisor to President Destler. Cardinal, along with a few dedicated students and an ever-changing team of volunteers, is in the process of implementing a zero-waste program at the Gene Polisseni Center, which is pending Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

The reason that the environmental industry allows for that 10 percent waste is very simple: there are just some things that we don’t know how to recycle or compost at this point in time, and the only alternative is to send that waste to a landfill. A specific example of this type of material that Cardinal mentioned is potato chip bags, because the materials used to make them cannot be separated.

“I’m pretty sure no one is going to give up their potato chips at a game,” she said. However, Cardinal is certain that, in time, we will get there. “We have smart students on campus, in Packaging Science and elsewhere, and I am hopeful that they will be turning the industry around for us.”

 “We have smart students on campus, in Packaging Science and elsewhere, and I am hopeful that they will be turning the industry around for us.”

How Does the Zero-Waste Program at the Polisseni Center Work? 

In order to start the zero-waste program off, Cardinal and her team worked together with the Polisseni Center’s caterers to make sure that as much material as possible, both consumable and otherwise, can be either recycled or composted. 

At the games, everything gets thrown into one of three types of containers — landfill, compost or recycling — each of which is headed to a different destination. 

All of the solid waste generated by RIT is sent to either the Mill Seat Landfill in Bergen, New York or the High Acres Landfill in Fairport, New York. The compostable material, which includes most organic material such as food waste, goes to the anaerobic digester system at Noblehurst Dairy Farms in Linwood, New York, where it is mixed with cow manure and then converted into energy. The recycling products are shipped to a material recovery facility in Buffalo, New York, where the different types of recyclable materials are separated out.

With all of these destinations set, it is mostly a matter of making sure that everything that can possibly be recycled makes it into the proper bin.

“People have a tendency to operate out of convenience, so if you’ve got them by themselves, wherever is closest is where everything is going,” Cardinal said. 

In order to subvert this as much as possible, they try to have at least 15 volunteers at every game to help direct attendees to the proper waste receptacle for each different type of trash. 

“We bring in around 30 volunteers — when the program was really in full swing we were bringing in 25 to 30 people each night — and we would give them a quick talk about some of the common misconceptions around recycling,” said Evan Zachary, a second year Environmental Sustainability, Health and Safety major and the vice president of the Student Environmental Action League (SEAL) who works with Cardinal on the program.

“'Is pizza recyclable?' is a question that I got once,” said Zachary, who called himself “the boots on the ground” of the zero-waste program. 

Nonetheless, while some game-goers at the Gene Polisseni Center noticed the signs that Cardinal and Zachary had affixed to the recycling, trash and compost bins, they were not always aware of the zero-waste initiative. 

"As time went on, I saw less and less of them," said fourth year Management Information Systems major and Student Government Vice President Tyler Pierce when asked how often he saw volunteers at the arena. Pierce estimated that he went to at least 70 percent of this year's hockey games.

"I remember going to a couple of games where there wasn’t really anyone at all," he recalled.

Bryson Fiscella, a fifth year Electrical Engineering major, did not recall ever seeing the volunteers in the trash area by Corner Crew, even though he attended most of the men's and women's hockey games this year. It is possible that this bin does not get a lot of fan traffic and is therefore of low priority to Zachary and his team of volunteers, but this is an area that could be improved.

Pierce noted that when the volunteers were there, they were helpful and sorted his trash into the correct containers — but they didn't try and educate him about what is and isn't recyclable or compostable, which is one of the goals of the program.

Progress at the Polisseni Center

Although the ultimate goal is a 90 percent diversion rate from landfills, the program is not there quite yet. “This start year’s goal was 50 percent diversion,” Cardinal said, meaning the 2014-2015 school year. There is quite a bit of growing left for the program to do, and they are already planning for it.

“Volunteers next year can expect a little bit more responsibility,” Zachary said. Students will not only participate in the initial sorting of the materials, but they will also help with the weighing process, which is how they determine what percent they have successfully diverted from landfills. 

“I think it will be interesting for them to participate in what is essentially a big, multi-thousand-person science experiment.” 

Cardinal and Zachary also hope to utilize the competitive environment at the hockey games to encourage people to recycle. 

"Starting to take the weights will almost help us implement kind of a competitive aspect to it," said Zachary. At each game, they would like to display the percent diversion rate from the last week and challenge the fans and participants at the current game to do even better.

In the end, engaging this audience to take an active role in this initiative has the potential to make a large difference in the center's waste diversion. There may always be a handful of committed individuals willing to volunteer their time to help people sort their trash, but until the thousands of people attending games decide to participate in this initiative, there is a chance that there will always be a garbage can left unattended and that waste will continue to go to the landfill. 

Cardinal explained this very succinctly: “There’s still energy that we could be saving, so there is a significant chunk of that that is feasible to do tomorrow if everyone just changed their behavior.”