How the University of Iowa busted silos to boost sustainability

How the University of Iowa busted silos to boost sustainability

corn silos

Busting down silos at the University of Iowa has nothing to do with mixing different bushels of corn together.

Instead, in the state known for producing the largest corn crop in the U.S., it means pushing different departments to work together to make the university's campus more sustainable.

That goes beyond the paper, electricity and other items expected in educating 30,000 students. It also means keeping food trash from a stadium full of football fans out of the landfill, and finding an eco-friendly means of disposing of the gowns and gloves used in medical care.

That's a lot to manage under one roof, but officials there said they have made it work, and that they're on track to reach their sustainability goals.

In 2010 the university made a commitment to reduce its environmental impact and set a goal to divert 60 percent of its waste from landfill. That meant doubling its diversion rate. By working across silos and adopting a new sort-free recycling program, diversion rates have increased in some areas by almost 50%, said Liz Christiansen, director of the university's office of sustainability, in a webcast this week produced by GreenBiz.

"Recycling is generally accepted as an important part of creating a sustainable campus," said Christiansen. Diverting recyclables has saved the university serious money on waste disposal, lowering costs from the 7 cents per pound it pays for garbage disposal to 5.4 cents per pound for recycling -- a 23 percent savings.

One change that increased recycling was introducing new collection containers. Previously, items were collected in separate bins for each product, but once the university switched to bins allowing multiple recyclables like glass and plastic bottles, recycling participation increased.

Dave Jackson, assistant to the associate vice president of facilities management, said there is one recycling coordinator for the university, with constant communication to make sure everyone is working towards the same sustainability goals. In addition, the campus employs a couple of designated staffers at each building who work closely with the facilities workers.

Another, less formal effort has teams of students and other staff developing their own efforts, he said.

"This has encouraged full ownership within the colleges," said Jackson.

Some of the university's moves toward sustainability coincided with budget cuts, which meant planners had to find measures that would work with a reduced custodial staff, so consolidating bins and pickup points became even more important.

Now, the culture is changing to one where office workers take ownership over waste instead of leaving it to a janitor, according to Jackson. He said there has not been an issue with unions over the changes.

Jackson said research and student volunteers are often involved with efforts, with waste audits being a good way to connect those both within and outside the university community.

Those audits look at what's being thrown out from the day before, and can generate insights about new ways to achieve waste reduction. "That's the ah-ha moment when building users discover that what is in their waste is no longer acceptable," Jackson said.

The university’s Institute for Dental Research, for example, has cut waste 30 percent since 2006, from about 308,000 pounds to 215,000 in 2012, said Maggie Hogan, dentistry research specialist who worked on the initiative. Recycling has almost doubled over the same period, from 35,300 pounds to 70,059.

Computers are shut off at night and no longer get turned on automatically. A recycling committee worked to site collection containers and set up printer and toner collections.

A committee is also collecting data, and another helped in planning energy use for a new facility the institute opened last year.

I think the reason so many people are interested is that they see what we see, which is a perfect storm of rising expectations to deliver sustainability in universities, said Tim Gray, Waste Management's strategic business director for higher education. At the same time universities are often a siloed environment where it's very hard to change.

"Universities are very, very diverse and complicated environments," said Gray. "In such a complex organization how can those who want to change the behavior of tens of thousands of people get things done?"

It's a good question -- one the University of Iowa found a lot of good answers for.

Image of corn crop with silos courtesy of Paul Matthew Photography via Shutterstock.