Becoming a zero-waste organization by just 2020 would be a tall task for any company—let alone a university system that spans a sprawling 419 acres and sees roughly 45,000 students traveling the grounds on a daily basis.
But that is exactly what the university has set out to do.
Making sense of data with apps
Jesse Escobar, an analyst for the school system’s Facilities Management department, was responsible for trash pickup at over 300 locations across the school’s campus on a regular basis. Where most would simply see a place to ditch a coffee cup, Jesse saw opportunities.
If the trash that Jesse and his team collected could be categorized and tracked from pickup, throughout the recycling and processing portions of the garbage’s life cycle, it might be possible to use that data to make smarter and more sustainable purchases in the future. Jesse had the vision, but not the coding experience, to achieve the strategy.
“I certainly had no coding experience, and there wasn’t a developer on my four-man team,” Jesse remarked. “But AppSheet is simple enough that I was able to build my app in just a couple hours.”
Rather than simply asking for more resources, Jesse’s app would enable him to utilize raw data to analyze and pinpoint action items to reduce waste.
How It Works
From there, Jesse and other team members spread out to cover more ground. After collecting and analyzing receptacles from across the campuses, Jesse became convinced that there were ample opportunities to realize the university’s sustainability efforts everywhere, hiding in plain sight.
Trash reduction: Many of the materials that are thrown away are distributed on campus or by the university itself. Were the school to cut certain items from its inventory, the campus could not only reduce spending, but accelerate its zero-waste efforts too. With the app, Jesse’s team could add new data at each pick-up bin to track the life cycle of a piece of waste to determine what is tossed to help find out what items could be eliminated.
Food waste: Massive amounts of food are purchased, made and sold to keep the student body well-fed. But food waste is rampant too. By tracking food waste, the university can more intelligently source food costs and find new ways to utilize waste rather than bring it to a landfill.
Back-end costs: It gets expensive quickly to dispose of and transport waste. By exploring data-driven methods for reducing waste, the school saves on all the back-end logistical considerations involved in dealing with waste.
Asset allocation: Jesse also was able to track bin volumes through his app, observing over the course of a year how different behaviors can impact the dissemination of waste across campus. If certain locations are found to be of no use, Jesse and his team were enabled to shift assets to other locations and projects, freeing up bandwidth and budget.
Time management: By putting barcodes on bins, Jesse’s team was able to easily scan the bins to upload data to the app immediately. This cut down on having manual tasks to complete, keeping the team active and engaged.
Jesse argues that “There has been significant research and development done to push recycling efforts, yet trash pickup has remained relatively unchanged for years,” Jesse states. “This demonstrates that there is a huge opportunity for the school to rethink the way we deal with our garbage.”
In reality, there are seemingly endless ways for the school to leverage Jesse’s app. Not only can the school control costs and assets more easily, but it can hasten its efforts to reach zero-waste status within the next two years.
Indeed, other universities may benefit from the example set by this university. Academia is certainly full of administrators looking to cut waste and control costs in an era of tight budget constraints.