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A healthy appetite for waste reduction

In this Grounded feature we chat with U of G environmental sustainability coordinator, Natalie Vasilivetsky, about efforts to create a Waste Reduction Master Plan

University campuses are, in many ways, microcosms of larger communities or cities populated by the leaders of tomorrow so, what better place is there than the University of Guelph to develop a Waste Management Master Plan for everyone to use?

“We are looking at campus as a living lab,” said Natalie Vasilivetsky, environmental sustainability coordinator at the University of Guelph. “How can we do this project here and how can we replicate it at a city setting or at another university.”

There are many reasons for the U of G to take on this challenge.

“First of all, there is a big appetite for change right now,” said Vasilivetsky. “There has been a definite change from when I started out seven years ago. It wasn’t as easy to get things through, but now a days there is such an appetite from every department I work with. We say, here is a sustainability thing we can collaborate on, and everybody is, ‘Yah, let’s do it. How can we do it together?’”

She sees that appetite for change growing off campus as well.

“We are always looking for people in the community to collaborate with us,” said Vasilivetsky. “I’d say we are on a trajectory where we are definitely improving quickly and steadily over the last seven years when it comes to things like divestment and community involvement and just how many people on campus really care or are actively working towards this common goal.”

The first step is recognizing and being honest with everyone about the amount of waste being generated at the U of G.

“We are doing great sure, but we could definitely be doing much, much better because we do produce an absurd amount of waste,” said Vasilivetsky. “In 2019, we produced 4,526.19 metric tons of waste. We have been tracking it all these years, but we are really thinking, how much deeper can we go into the tracking and then how do we bring all of these numbers down?”

Knowing the numbers and the extent of the problem creates opportunities for everyone to apply their various areas of training and expertise in a real and practical way.

“Here are all these interdisciplinary students from all over the place, all these staff, faculty, all these community partners and everyone wants to work on environmental issues,” she said. “Okay, here’s a big one. We have a ton of data and how can we work together to solve it?”

They have put together the first draft of the Waste Reduction Master Plan and have been sharing some of their research on Twitter and Instagram.

“It’s a draft but it’s also kind of a living document,” said Vasilivetsky. “We’re open to the fact that things are going to change depending on current research and how things are in the world.

For instance, now a days we are factoring in something like a global pandemic into a waste report. That changes everything, right?”

What might appear as simple or quick solutions can have unforeseen and negative impacts.

“There was this big push to ban straws,” said Vasilivetsky. “You can’t really do that because a lot of people need straws for accessibility reasons. I like to go as fast as we possibly can and at this point, I think we are picking up momentum, but I want to make sure that everything is really well researched rather than just a cascading ban on something.”

The focus is on community consultation, education and finding sustainable solutions rather than shaming people for their wasteful habits.

“We have to make sure we are factoring in things like mental health,” she said. “Shaming people for the waste they produce is a bad environmental tactic. People have a lot of things going on right now and we’re in a pandemic. So, we try to keep all of our messaging hopeful, shame free and have a more, ‘Hey, how can we work together on this to fix this issue?”

Initiatives such as the campus wide composting program are examples of how everyone can do their part.

“The composting program was started by students,” said Vasilivetsky. “It was all volunteer and very grassroots, but now it’s becoming more institutionalized. Which is great.” 

There is also a tradition of social and environmental activism on campus.

“We are really lucky to have groups like OPIRG and our independent media with things like CFRU 93.3 and newspapers like the Ontarion,” she said. “We work with hospitality services as well. They’re making a bunch of upgrades on campus to different waste infrastructure and things like that. We’ve got a lot of people that are willing to mobilize for change.”

There is no shortage of resources and arguably the biggest and most sustainable resources are the students themselves.

“I am absolutely floored by how much engagement we get from students and how many incredible and creative ideas students have all the time,” said Vasilivetsky. “We have some amazing summer students that are helping us with the research and a whole bunch of sustainability ambassador projects led by our engagement person Samantha Casey. They have a campus conservation group putting in a bunch of pollinator gardens on campus and we also work with World Wildlife Fund. They help us fund a bunch of projects and we are really thankful for them.”

They expect to have a final draft of the Waste Reduction Master Plan completed and available to the public by the end of the year.

“I think as far as universities go, we are pretty ahead of the curve,” said Vasilivetsky. “However, with the climate crisis looming, there is certainly room for improvement. So, we will really work with students and with a lot of the faculty, as well. Our office is like a community bridge, basically. We work with a lot of organizations off campus and on campus and we bring everyone together to share resources.”

An added benefit is that the students develop life and job skills that are transferable to the businesses and communities they move on to after graduation.   

“There is a lot to learn,” said Vasilivetsky. “They come out with project management skills. There is the research side and the data collection, but there is also the physical, on-the-ground stuff that is really useful together. They can say, ‘Hey, I ran this project at the University of Guelph. I can run it in some other town too.’"