UMass Lowell Named a Top 10 Zero Waste Campus by National Nonprofit

A student carries an air conditioner on his shoulder in a parking lot while another student collects recycled items from a car in the background Image by Ed Brennen
A student employee from the Office of Sustainability carries a window air conditioner that was dropped off during the recent Fall into Recycling event at the University Crossing parking lot.

By Ed Brennen

Stuck at home indefinitely during the pandemic, Stacey Felix was one of those people who used the time to tackle projects around the house.

“We cleaned out the basement and made a junk pile of stuff to get rid of,” says Felix, associate director of the Solution Center.

Rather than pay someone to haul away her old TVs and computers, Felix brought them to Fall into Recycling, a popular two-day event for members of the UML community hosted twice a year by the Office of Sustainability and Information Technology.

This fall’s event collected 13,297 pounds of appliances, electronics, batteries, light bulbs and confidential documents for shredding — one of the biggest hauls in the program’s four-year history.

“With the cancellation of the 2020 recycling events, we anticipated higher volume and increased participation compared to previous years,” says Sustainability Coordinator Nicole Kelly. “Quite a few staff and faculty members reached out saying they'd cleaned out basements and garages over the pandemic and had been waiting over a year for the event.”

It was only fitting that Fall into Recycling returned the same week that UMass Lowell was named a Top 10 Zero Waste Campus by the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), a national nonprofit organization that supports college waste reduction efforts.

A group of six people pose for a photo while standing in front of two blue tents Image by Ed Brennen
A team of students and staff members from the Office of Sustainability and Information Technology braved the rain during Fall into Recycling.

In the inaugural rankings based on PLAN’s Atlas Zero Waste Assessment scoring, UML is sixth in the country at 58.8% — just behind the University of Connecticut (59.9%). Scores are calculated by looking at every possible material that a college would purchase and dispose of — from furniture and lab chemicals to dining hall food and dishware — and then assigning point values in the areas of a school’s infrastructure, policy and bin standardization.

College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, tops the rankings at 73.5%, followed by the University of California, Berkeley (68.3%) and Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (61.8%).

UML has also been recognized as a top performer in the 2021 Sustainable Campus Index, ranking seventh in the area of waste reduction among more than 900 higher education institutions in 40 countries. UML’s score of 78.1 was third best among U.S. colleges and universities.

A publication from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the Sustainable Campus Index recognizes top-performing sustainable colleges and universities overall and in 17 impact areas, as measured by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS).

UML’s waste reduction efforts began in earnest with the introduction of a single-stream recycling program in 2008 and have grown to include composting, battery and small electronics collection bins, and a Greener Giveaways Guide, which faculty and staff can use to limit disposable event “swag” in favor of sustainable and durable gifts and products.

“Recycling and waste diversion play an important role in the university’s commitment to sustainability, and we’re happy to see those efforts being recognized at the national level,” says Ruairi O’Mahony, director of sustainability and co-director of the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy (RISE).

Two students unload a white washing machine from the back of a white pickup Image by Ed Brennen
Students unload a washing machine from the back of a pickup during Fall into Recycling at University Crossing.

Among the more than 6 tons of items collected during Fall into Recycling this year were 10,206 pounds of appliances and electronics — everything from a washing machine and chain saws to flat-screen TVs and cellphones.

There were also 331 pounds of alkaline, lithium ion and lead acid batteries, and 2,760 pounds of confidential documents for secure shredding.

Despite a steady rain, cars lined up in the University Crossing parking lot on the first collection day (Day 2 was held on South Campus).

In addition to her junk from home, Felix wheeled over an old microwave and mini refrigerator from the Solution Center.

“It’s nice to see the university is doing this,” she said as she headed back to her car to get an old TV.

Spring into Recycling is tentatively scheduled for April as a kickoff to the university’s Earth Week festivities.