Top: Carleton College’s Free & For Sale Frenzy event
Left: University of Louisville students with a head of celery found in a dumpster!
Right: Haverford College students conducting a waste audit
Today, we are excited to release the first annual list of Top 10 Zero Waste Campuses in the United States (as assessed by PLAN’s Atlas Zero Waste Certification™ Program)!
We also wanted to take a moment to offer some critical self-reflection on the pros and cons of releasing a Top 10 list.
We are hesitant to play into the trope of campus competitions for a few reasons. First, we have been openly critical of these in the past. For example, this Instagram post covers our complicated feelings about recycling competitions. We are aware that competitions often don’t incentivize the types of system change we need to turn the tide on the ever-growing production of single-use disposable plastics and the demands that the latest IPCC report places on all of us to build systems that effectively reduce consumption at the systemic level. Campuses often use competition platforms that don’t call for systemic changes as a method of greenwashing their overall sustainability efforts by highlighting an objectively small accomplishment in the grand scheme of their overall sustainability efforts. We believe that PLAN’s new assessment framework focuses on systemic impacts:
Atlas' Systemic Impacts
- We spent four years building the Atlas Zero Waste Assessment™, working with two campus advisory councils and over a dozen pilot campuses from all over the United States to ensure that our assessment was rigorous, thorough, and didn’t leave space for greenwashing or gamification of the points system. The points-based analysis that Atlas provides is a quantitative method of measuring qualitative impact. We assess the qualitative because we know that the diversion metric does not effectively measure zero waste, and we want to focus this assessment on the responsibility of institutions to provide the systematic infrastructure necessary to achieve zero waste.
- This assessment sets a high bar to achieve even a Bronze certification. It is worth noting that the top-scoring campus so far has only scored a 73.5% (essentially, a C minus), and that the average campus score so far has been in the low 50s. For more scoring information and a detailed FAQ on the project’s methodology and analysis, check out this page.
- Updating the assessment is a constantly evolving process. As we learn more about emerging best practices and we research new technologies, we will continue to raise the bar for what it takes to be certified as a zero waste campus. If you would like to suggest updates or additions to the assessment, please fill out this form and we will be in touch!
- The Atlas Zero Waste Certification™ is a call to action. We are looking for campuses to step up and take responsibility for the materials they manage and the waste they produce.
- We want this Top 10 list to serve as a space to highlight campuses for their achievements and innovations. We have yet to see a campus achieve zero waste, or come close, and we don’t even know if it’s possible under the current circumstances present within the capitalist system of linear consumption. Under each campus’s scores, we have included details of their programs and links to learn more about their work.
We also realize that this list is not representative of the wide diversity of campuses in the United States, and generally includes only well-funded and well-resourced campuses that are also predominantly white institutions (PWIs). We currently offer all campuses in the United States the opportunity to request assessment and certification services from PLAN at a discounted rate or for free, and we even offer stipends for student Fellows if their campuses could not otherwise afford to pay for this program. We are continuing to work on our efforts to improve our equitable access systems, and welcome thoughts and feedback from the community. Please feel free to reach out to us at any time by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org!
Keeping those reflections in mind, we’re excited to share the profiles of the Top 10 Zero Waste Campuses (as assessed by Atlas).
Left: Students at a campus climate rally
Right: Students gathered around a solar finder for solar energy research
Bar Harbor, ME I 350 students I Private | COA’s full Atlas Zero Waste Scorecard
- Scope 1: 62.4% – BRONZE
- Scope 2: 83.0% – GOLD
College of the Atlantic
College of the Atlantic is the highest ranking campus assessed by the Atlas Zero Waste™ project so far! They are the only campus to reach Silver-level Certification, and the only campus to have their Scope 2 system qualify for a Gold-level badge!
COA redefines the traditional campus approach to waste management as “Discarded Resources” management, allowing them to see all materials on campus as resources that require effective management strategies to mitigate disposal. The Discarded Resources department incorporates significant student leadership roles to manage surplus property systems, plastic reduction strategies, compost collection and management, and much more! In addition to many well-established “Discarded Resources” strategies and initiatives, COA has a number of unique projects that make them stand out, including composting toilets inside residence halls, and vending machines that contain re-packaged leftovers from meals in the dining halls for students to access sustainable midnight snacks. In November, 2019 COA became the first college in the country to sign the Campus Pledge to Break Free From Plastics, committing to the elimination of all single-use disposable plastics by 2025!
Left: Students conducting a Waste Audit in August 2018
Right: Chou Hall Zero Waste Initiative tabling
Berkeley, CA I 41,900 students I Public | UC Berkeley’s full Atlas Zero Waste Scorecard
- Scope 1: 65.6% – BRONZE
- Scope 2: 69.4% – BRONZE
The Cal Zero Waste Department, a part of Facilities, has multiple staff and student employees that manage zero waste programs and services on campus, including recycling and composting and the expansion of standardized bins and signage to all buildings on campus. They also perform a number of education and outreach efforts, and help coordinate material reuse efforts.
The student Zero Waste Lab and Zero Waste Research Center at UC Berkeley research and implement upstream strategies for reducing campus waste, with a focus on purchasing, redesigning products, creating behavior change incentives, and instituting closed-loop “circular economy” waste systems.
In April, 2020, the University of California system pledged to eliminate all non-essential single-use plastic with viable alternatives by 2030.
Left: Signs from the No Impact Challenge, where students carried around their waste for a week!
Right: Student with a Green2Go reusable container in the dining hall
Northfield, MN I 2,000 students I Private
Carleton College doesn’t have a scorecard because their assessment was performed as part of Atlas Zero Waste’s pilot program, prior to the development of the scorecard. Scope 1 & 2 were not assessed during the early pilot phase of Atlas.
- Carleton College has a number of successful waste reduction initiatives: a campus-wide reusable to-go container program (Green2Go), standardized waste reduction bins and signage, an annual collection of reusable items during move out and a “Lighten Up Garage Sale” during move-in weekend, a “Free and For Sale Frenzy” pop-up consignment shop, and a campus surplus property program. Carleton also has some very unique strategies for waste reduction, including an annual pop-up repair fair, compost collection bins in bathrooms for items like paper towels, a “trash talking” program that provides funding to student organizations in exchange for their time volunteering at athletics and other large events on campus to help attendees sort trash properly, and a “Custodial Waste Busters” committee that provides the opportunity for custodial workers to meet about and work on solutions for waste reduction strategies.
Left: HaverFarm stand on campus; Right: Haverford’s (Re)use store
Haverford, PA I 1,300 students I Private | Haverford’s full Atlas Zero Waste Scorecard
- Scope 1: 63.8% – BRONZE
- Scope 2: 59.4%
- Haverford College has a number of sustainable campus operations, including a comprehensive Sustainable Purchasing Policy that places great emphasis on reducing consumption through responsible purchasing and eliminating unnecessary purchases altogether. The campus makes a number of reuse, repair, and recycling options available to its students, such as a (Re)use store, reusable to-go ware program, Makerspace, and battery and hard-to-recycle material collection bins. Dining Services disposes of all pre- and post-consumer food waste in an aerobic digester, affectionately named “Munchy Crunchy, Grinds Up Your Lunchy”. Two campus groups, (The Council on Sustainability and Social Responsibility, and the student-run Committee for Environmental Responsibility), collaborate on environmental initiatives such as zero waste and community education.
Left: Campus Clean Up Day 2021
Right: Green Game Day 2021
Storrs, CT I 32,100 students I Public | UConn’s full Atlas Zero Waste Scorecard
- Scope 1: 62.7% – BRONZE
- Scope 2: 58.1%
University of Connecticut
The University of Connecticut has several established zero waste programs managed by the Office of Sustainability and its undergraduate intern team. Each semester, the Office dedicates interns to focus solely on waste reduction projects, like the annual EcoMadness and RecycleTHON competitions in residence halls. Other programs managed by the Office include electronic waste collection locations, the Green Piece reusable to-go ware program, and Green Game Days where patrons are guided by “trash talkers” to sort their waste into the correct waste stream. The University’s Dining Services is committed to reducing food waste through initiatives such as food recovery and trayless dining. In addition, the campus manages many of its Scope 1 items through a strong surplus property system.
Following completion of its Atlas Stage 1 assessment, UCONN formed an EPAC Work Group to analyze the results of its Atlas report and create goals for the campus moving forward.
Left: UML’s mascot, Rowdy the River Hawk, next to bin signage
Right: Move out program
Lowell, MA I 17,800 students I Public
UMass Lowell doesn’t have a scorecard because their assessment was performed as part of Atlas Zero Waste’s pilot program, prior to the development of the scorecard.
University of Massachusetts, Lowell
UML has a number of well-established waste reduction programs managed by the Office of Sustainability, including compost initiatives, surplus property, and an extensive system to collect hard-to-recycle materials like electronics, batteries, lightbulbs, etc. Most electronics destined for recycling are dismantled in-house through an on-campus electronic waste recycling program to retain the highest value for material recovered. UML encourages on-campus programs and departments to utilize their “Greener Giveaways Guide” to limit disposable swag in favor of sustainable and durable gifts and products.
Left: Campus Free Store
Right: Students with a full head of celery found in a dumpster
Louisville, KY I 23,200 students I Public | UofL’s full Atlas Zero Waste Scorecard
- Scope 1: 63.4% – BRONZE
- Scope 2: 53.9%
University of Louisville
The University of Louisville has had a Zero Waste Committee in place since 2013 that has led the campus through a number of strategic initiatives. UofL has implemented a “mini-bin” trash collection system in offices, and increased recycling and pre and post-consumer compost collection across campus. They also have a reusable to-go container program in the dining hall, a Food Recovery initiative that collects food weekly from multiple locations, and multiple educational and awareness raising campaigns like “Weigh the Waste” to encourage food waste reduction. The Student Activity Center on campus has the Cardinal Cupboard campus food pantry, and a student-run Free Store!
In the Spring of 2021 UofL became the second campus to complete Stage 2 of the Atlas Zero Waste project and publicly published a Strategic Vision for Zero Waste. The vision includes a series of proposals to hire additional staff to improve materials management infrastructure on campus, expand the campus surplus property program and reusable to-go ware availability on campus, and establish a number of other key initiatives.
Left: Students composting in the dining hall
Right: Sustainability office tabling
Burlington, VT I 11,900 students I Public | UVM’s full Atlas Zero Waste Scorecard
- Scope 1: 57.9%
- Scope 2: 57.8%
University of Vermont
As UVM’s website says, they were recycling before it was cool. UVM has a Recycling and Zero Waste Office that manages or helps to coordinate a number of established programs like the campus recycling and compost collection system, the EcoWare reusable to-go container program, a barn full of university surplus property, multiple campus collection points for “Techno Trash” recycling for materials like batteries and lightbulbs, and supports a robust green building policy that requires the majority of building construction and demolition waste be reused or recycled.
UVM was the first campus to explore the Atlas Fellowship program with PLAN in its pilot stage, helping to build the Fellowship program that guides the Atlas Assessment process today.
Left: UW’s 2019 Trash-In event
Right: Surplus storage unit
Seattle, WA I 46,000 students I Public | UW’s full Atlas Zero Waste Scorecard
- Scope 1: 58.5%
- Scope 2: 55.5%
University of Washington
The University of Washington has committed to three target actions under its Strategic Plan Goal IX: 10% Solid Waste by 2025 – divert compostable waste from recycling and landfill, implement low-waste campus kitchens, and reduce single-use disposable items. Currently, each of its approximately 40 dining facilities offers both front-of-house and back-of-house composting, and UW Recycling ensures consistency and standardization in color, style, signage, and placement of its 3-bin waste collection system campus-wide.
Housing & Food Services Sustainable Dining initiatives include its robust food recovery program, partnering with the off-campus organization Food LifeLine and the on-site Food Pantry. All to-go ware is compostable, including dining ware distributed by national brands such as Starbucks.
The campus also offers many options for reusing and repairing Scope 1 items. All campus departments are required to use UW Surplus, which makes items available to students as well as staff members. In addition, the UBike program rents out bicycles for an academic quarter to students at low cost, all campus members can access the library’s Computer Vet service for software troubleshooting, and multiple HRM collection locations are mapped out around campus.
Left: Scrape Your Plate program
Right: Sustainable St. Thomas students at an event
St. Paul, MN I 9,900 students I Private | St. Thomas’ full Atlas Zero Waste Scorecard
- Scope 1: 49.0%
- Scope 2: 60.5% – BRONZE
University of St. Thomas
- The University of St. Thomas has a number of robust waste reduction initiatives, from a campus-wide system for recycling and compost collection, to a program that provides leftover food waste to local farms for pig feed, to a food recovery program that donates edible leftovers to local shelters. They have a well-designed Green Cleaning Program that guides sustainable purchasing and chemical use reduction practices. St. Thomas also has a number of student engagement opportunities, from student clubs to competitions and the option to live in a sustainability living learning community on campus.