By Emma Sperry, resource use and recycling intern

Whether we realize it or not, the process of waste affects nearly every decision that we make. Every granola bar we unwrap, every bottle of water we drink, every textbook we order from Amazon, and every freebie we pick up from a campus event has had a life before us and it will have a life after we throw it away. It took valuable resources to make and transport these items, and it will take valuable resources to send these items to their final resting place (often a landfill).

When I meet with the Resource Use and Recycling Working Group, which is a coalition of incredibly devoted staff and faculty volunteers dedicated to reducing IU’s waste stream, we often talk about changing the culture of waste at IU. The culture of waste is the way that IU members think about the items that we use and throw away. Do we consider if we could do without an item? Do we choose items based on their ability to be reused or recycled? Do we recycle the item if possible? Unfortunately, IU has a low diversion rate (the percentage of material that is recycled rather than thrown away) and we throw away a lot of trash. This indicates that IU must improve the sustainability of its culture of waste.

The difficulty with changing the culture of waste lies in the interconnectedness of the waste process with the decisions of each person at Indiana University. Because the process is so big (it starts with the purchase of an item and ends with a landfill) and so many different people and systems are involved, there is no one solution that will magically reduce IU’s waste stream. However, there are two ways to think about solving these large systemic problems. One way is to make change from the top down: alter policies, create programs, or invest in systems that minimize waste or help people make better waste decisions. The other way is to make change from the bottom up: educate and inform individual people so that they make smarter, more sustainable waste choices. The question, of course, is to decide which way to pursue.  

Luckily, the Resource Use and Recycling Working Group is pursuing both ways of making change. Recently, we have worked with staff at IU Athletics, RPS, and Purchasing to make progress on implementing a composting structure at the dining facilities of IU. We have worked on creating an online recycling course that will one day be mandatory for incoming IU staff. Currently, we are discussing the possibility of passing a Green Purchasing Policy that will encourage staff and faculty to purchase only sustainable items for their respective departments.

Our group is also hard at work educating and informing individual members of IU’s community. This month marks the celebration of Recyclemania, a national competition among various schools to reduce campus waste. As a part of this event, we are hosting Recycling Blitzes where we will help students in the dining halls properly dispose of their waste and tabling events where we will spread awareness about recycling and Recyclemania. In addition, Greening Cream and Crimson, the sustainability group of IU Athletics, will be educating fans and sorting recycling at the men’s basketball game against Penn State later this month.

At the end of the day, it is only you, the students, staff, and faculty of Indiana University, who can change the course of IU’s waste impact on our community. It may not seem like your decision to use a refillable water bottle will change the world, but in the aggregate, your sustainable choices have the ability to influence economic markets for goods, to change local and even national policies, and perhaps most importantly, to alter the behavior of the people around you.  Our waste problem is big, it is scary, and it is not going away any time soon. But it is not insurmountable. Your sustainable waste choices can and will reduce the use of valuable resources and make this world a cleaner, more beautiful place to live.

Tips to Reduce Your Waste:


  1. Buy/rent used textbooks when you can.
  2. Keep printing to a minimum – if you have to print, print double-sided and with multiple sheets per page.
  3. Recycle your items! Every trash bin on campus is paired with a recycling bin. Check out the IUOS Recycling Guide if you are unsure about what you can recycle at IU


  1. Instead of buying brand new household items (cookware, lamps, small furniture, etc.), check out the Hoosier to Hoosier Sale at the beginning of each school year to get gently used items at great prices!
  2. Invest in a large recycling bin. Surprisingly, most of what we throw away is actually recyclable. Many people find that once they start recycling, it takes weeks to fill up the garbage can.

Food and Drink:

  1. Carry a water bottle and fill it up at campus fill stations or water fountains.
  2. Carry a reusable fork or spoon so you never have to use plastic silverware again.
  3. Make a list on your refrigerator of any fresh food so you don’t let food rot and go to waste.
  4. Buy only what you will eat – at the dining halls, restaurants and the grocery store.
  5. Think about packaging when you buy food – buy items that are packaged with only recyclable materials

If you want to volunteer for the Recycling Blitzes, click here!


One thought on “Changing the Culture of Waste

  1. Thank you Emma for outlining the waste issue and what we can do as a campus community to improve it.
    To students: this comes from one of you, a student, and she sees this big picture, please accept her advice? Each one of you has the power to create change.

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