Students have the power to make the U of O zero-waste—and it’s easier than ever

When it comes to climate change, one of the biggest barriers we face is apathy—people don’t believe they can change the situation, so they do nothing.

In many cases this can be true, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps that can be taken right here on our campus. In fact, according to University of Ottawa’s Office of Campus Sustainability manager Jonathan Rausseo, making change can be as simple as reduce-reuse-recycle.

But, despite what you may think, not all three methods are equal. As Rausseo puts it, recycling is “the worst good thing you can do, because reuse and reduction are vastly better for the environment.”

The province of Ontario has adopted the same emphasis on reuse and reduction in its newest legislation on waste production at public institutions, Bill 151, or the Waste-Free Ontario Act. The bill is part of the province’s Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario, which is in turn based on the idea of a circular economy—a system where all waste is reused as inputs to other goods, services, or processes.

Although Rausseo says the U of O was in compliance with the previous version of this legislation, having a waste diversion rate of 64.5 per cent, there are challenges ahead with meeting the zero-waste target.

“There are two weak points that end up happening. One is comprehension of the recycling system, because some things are just stupidly complicated,” he says. “The other problem that we have now is that we’re starting to do compost on a larger scale. That’s getting people a little more confused.”

Although this fact may leave you scratching your head, students failing to properly recycle on campus is the biggest barrier to meeting the zero-waste target. Proper recycling… should be easy enough, right?

Rausseo says that part of the problem is the frequency at which the regulations around recycling evolve, approximating that about 10 different changes are made annually. But he also says that we need to take a little more time, and a lot more ownership, to get the waste where it needs to be.

“The problem with waste in general is that we spoil people, you know, we throw it in a bag and some magic person takes it away. And it’s not that simple down the road, we’re starting to feel the consequences of it,” he says. “The message we try to get out to people is take your time, and do your best.”

Another issue lies in the fact that recycling at the university is source-separated, meaning that students hold a lot of power in putting the products in their proper bins. This can be a problem if people aren’t following the instructions, as Rausseo notes that any U of O recycling bag with more than 15 per cent contamination is sent to a landfill.

While giving students the power to impact the waste system on campus presents some challenges, Rausseo is quick to point out that this is also a good way for students to do their part in mitigating climate change.

“Recycling is a great topic, because unlike many other topics you actually control it. As a student you don’t really have control over the heat, you don’t really have control over the electricity, you don’t really even have control over the water. Recycling you have all the control.”

Beyond recycling, Rausseo urges students to give their current unused belongings a new life by donating them the Free Store on campus. He notes that this is only one resource of many in the city to reuse and recycle unconventional waste like clothing. Avoiding or minimizing purchases of single-use items, like plastic water bottles, is another way Rausseo says we can move towards a circular economy.

“We want to try to get people to think about things a little differently, but also to make complaints to the university sometimes too,” Rausseo says of the Office of Campus Sustainability. “There are all these opportunities that are out there, we just need people to complain about them or pitch ideas to us.”

So for those who think climate change is an issue beyond their reach, think again. As the U of O moves toward a waste-free campus, you—“just” a student—can be a driving force behind the transition. It’s as easy as reduce-reuse-recycle.