Recycling & Waste

Change Agent:
20 Years of Sustainability at UBC

Waste Not, Want Not

At UBC, we’ve embraced a bold vision of a zero-waste campus. Our Zero-Waste Action Plan, released in 2014, includes a target of diverting 80 per cent of our waste from the landfill by 2020. We’re well on the way to reaching that goal, thanks to a concerted effort by our students, faculty and staff. The investments we are making towards becoming a waste-free campus will reap rewards for generations to come.

The incredible shrinking landfill

Small actions can create meaningful change, especially when it comes to waste. When UBC replaced the all-purpose garbage bins on campus with multi-stream recycling stations and food-scrap collection bins in 2015, it was the beginning of a whole new approach to waste. Supported by the Sort it Out campaign, the campus-wide effort to recycle containers, paper, and food scraps is starting to pay off: since the launch of Sort it Out, the amount of food waste we have composted has doubled, from approximately 450 tonnes to 900 tonnes per year.

Creating a zero waste campus: our goal is to reach 80% composting and recycling by 2020.

Food infographics
Food infographics


Campus compost

At UBC, we have something called a ‘closed-loop’ system: we turn food and plant waste into compost that goes back into the ground without ever leaving campus. In 2004, we became the first Canadian university to invest in an in-vessel composter — a giant, fully enclosed eco-transmuter capable of processing five tonnes of organic waste a day. Located at the south end of the Vancouver campus, all of the compost produced there goes back into the soil and gets used for landscaping on campus.

Our Okanagan campus also boasts a composting system, with yellow compost bins on the main floor foyers of each building and smaller bins in the collegia and lunchroom spaces across campus. Organic material is collected three times a week and added to the campus composter — a 1,800-kilogram-capacity enclosed Earth Tub that can compost up to 45 kilograms per day.

Compost animation
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UBC’s Compost System

UBC’s Compost System

Waste-free construction

On our evolving campus, construction projects are a familiar sight. What’s less known is that three-quarters of construction waste from institutional buildings must be diverted from the landfill, as mandated in our UBC Technical Guidelines. Recent construction projects have actually surpassed those numbers: in 2014–15, slightly more than 80 per cent of construction and demolition waste from institutional construction projects was diverted from the landfill.

A case in point: the General Services Administration Building. When it was torn down in 2015, 4,000 tonnes of waste were repurposed, including large amounts of concrete. Before the bulldozers moved in, a sale of office furniture and equipment to university departments and faculties stopped 39,000 kilograms of furniture from heading to the landfill, while saving thousands of dollars in furnishing costs for other departments.

Paper cuts

We go through our fair share of paper at UBC, but we are making a concerted effort to turn over a new leaf, and it’s yielding measurable results. As of 2010–11, we achieved a 65-per-cent reduction in consumption compared to 2000 levels, even with a 34-per-cent increase in student numbers — a result that far exceeded our internal targets. In 2010 we also eliminated the printed UBC telephone directory, replacing it with a digital version. That one small step reduced the university’s annual paper consumption by 4.7 million sheets of paper, eliminated 16 tonnes of equivalent CO2 annually, and relieved us of the burden of recycling obsolete directories. It also saved $90,000 in staff and printing costs each year.

In 2010 we eliminated the printed UBC telephone directory, replacing it with a digital version. This led to:

4.7 Million Sheets of Paper

Annual consumption reduction

16 Tonnes of Equivalent CO2

Eliminated annually


Saved in staff and printing costs each year

Turning trash into treasure

Necessity is the mother of invention, but the same could be said of waste. With some of the brightest minds in our midst, some truly inspired breakthroughs in tackling waste issues are happening at UBC. In 2015, UBC Vancouver engineering physics students Dennon Oosterman, Alex Kay and David Joyce created ProtoCycler, a tool to turn plastic waste into material for 3D printing. Forestry doctoral student Felix Böck made headlines in 2016 with his start-up ChopValue, a company that makes furniture out of recycled chopsticks. At UBC Okanagan, chemist Susan Murch has teamed up with Passive Remediation Systems Ltd. to explore how to pull contaminant chemicals out of the ground using poplar trees, and then use high-pressure steam extraction to recover these chemicals from the wood.

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Poplar Chemical Extraction Research

Poplar Chemical Extraction Research

Interested in ways to create zero-waste environments?

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Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners: The UBC Sustainability Initiative and Campus and Community Planning and the many units, departments, and faculties at UBC that helped contribute invaluable information on sustainability for this story.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, online producer; Cynthia Deng, web developer assistant; Margaret Doyle, digital storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC photographer; Michael Kam, web developer; Adrian Liem, manager, digital communications; Mark Pilon, communication designer; Jamil Rhajiak, digital communications specialist; Matt Warburton, manager, graphic design; Aida Viziru, UX designer. Additional writing — Jessica Werb, content writer. Additional copywriting — David Leidl, copy editor.

Published: May 2017