Drowning in Waste By 2020?
– Featured Image By Emily May
Growing global waste management issues, increasing climate change pressures, and missing our UC-Wide Zero Waste by 2020 goals inspires IDEASS Lab team, Myceliall Solutions, to take matters into their own hands.
It’s Fall of 2021 and after a whirlwind year, you’ve finally made it back onto campus. You’re rushing over to a café to pick up some brain food, a slice of pizza, and a sports drink—the breakfast of champions. When it comes time to dispose of the evidence you find yourself bewildered, standing over an array of colorful bins. Which one does the greasy wax paper go into? Will that last sip at the bottom of your bottle disqualify it from being processed as a recyclable? Can cardboard pizza boxes even be composted? Running out of time, you optimistically drop them into the recycling bin… unwittingly contaminating the entire contents. As a result, our recyclables tragically get dumped into the landfill on Dimeo Lane off Highway 1.
With fast-paced lifestyles and increasing academic pressure, most students are guilty of tossing something into the recycling bin that doesn’t belong there. The reality is, we all have to put forth greater efforts to improve our waste management in order to create a more sustainable campus. UCSC students and faculty have had such high contamination rates that, until recently, our recyclables were being rejected by city recycling facilities, ending up in our local landfill. With our recent failure to reach our 2020 Zero Waste goal, new measures must be implemented as we look towards modifying our goals for 2025 to 2030.1 The following article will discuss the challenges we face in current national and global waste streams, provide an overview of UCSC waste management, introduce the concept of a circular economy, and highlight an ongoing campus research project that has been taking steps towards sustainable solutions.
NATIONAL AND LOCAL WASTE MANAGEMENT
National Waste Management
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. generated nearly 300 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018. We sent over 50% of that to landfills. That averages out to 4.9 pounds of MSW per person per day, a 300% increase in U.S. waste production since 1960.2 With less than a third of our planet’s natural resources remaining and only 4% of old-growth forests left, humankind needs to make major changes if we want to achieve long-term economic, social, and environmental stability.3 Even though the U.S. makes up 4% of the world’s population, we produce 12% of the world’s MSW, making us the most wasteful country in the world.⁴
Santa Cruz Waste Management
Paper is one of the largest categories of our nation’s MSW production, a figure mirrored in the distribution of trash produced in Santa Cruz County. Surpassed only by construction and vegetation, paper goods are the third largest category by weight, making up 13.5% of solid waste locally. With our regional landfills running out of space, it is important for us to reassess our paper waste stream as we continue to search for solutions to better manage our waste on campus.
Plastic waste is the fourth largest contributor in Santa Cruz County, estimated to make up 11.9% of total solid municipal waste.⁵ Even with emerging waste management technologies and numerous zero-waste initiatives, a city as progressive as Santa Cruz County hasn’t been able to curb trash production.
UCSC Waste Management
In 2019, the Santa Cruz Resource Recovery Center began refusing UCSC recyclables due to our contamination rates averaging around 70%.1 Improper sorting of paper products with food scraps, disposable coffee cups, and other non-recyclable products were commonly found in inappropriate bins. This contamination led to the entire contents of the containers being landfilled. We have since been able to reduce our contamination rates to 25% or less, which resulted in some of our recyclables getting accepted.⁶ As we transition out of a global pandemic during the 2021-2022 school year, maintaining these lower levels will be a challenge for the university.
As part of our Zero Waste goals, UCSC implemented a 4-bin system in 2012 that includes separate trash cans for clean paper, recycling, composting, and landfilling. This was initiated in the hopes of achieving the goal outlined in our Zero Waste UC-wide initiative to divert 90% of waste from landfills to recycling or composting facilities by 2020. Despite our efforts, we missed our goal by a significant amount, diverting only 51% in 2019.⁷ While the university recently allocated $5 million towards creating a 3.7-acre hub for waste sorting known as the Mesa, dining hall and residential waste remains entirely unsorted, landfilling 40% of what could have been composted or recycled properly. While composting remains a viable solution, only about 7% of the 700 tons of compostables collected from UCSC compost bins on campus ever make it to the composting facility in Marina for processing. The rest is too much to process and ends up in our landfill.⁸ There is a clear need for innovative solutions as humans continue to fall short in our current waste management systems.
THE CURRENT SYSTEM
With deserts expanding, sea levels rising, populations growing, per capita consumption increasing, livestock increasing in number, and the global depletion of biodiversity, it is clear that the Earth’s life-sustaining functions are shrinking at exponential rates.⁹ Our linear system of materials flow has played a significant role in the global climate crisis. Extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of solid materials all come at the expense of our natural environments. Each step along the linear system has a carbon footprint associated with it and the trash that we produce has a significant impact on our planet, whether it be through chemical contamination or through the depletion of natural resources.3 One might ask: how do we get out of this mess? One answer is to reverse the system by creating a cyclical flow of materials and energy.
THE PROPOSITION OF A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
One concept, popularized by the European Union and emerging global business models, is the circular economy. A circular economy is a renewable materials model that closes waste streams by recirculating used materials back into systems of production. As a potential pathway to sustainable development, it aims to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Currently, the theory of a circular economy is in its early stages of development. The field of circular economics is highly disorganized and dynamic, spanning across many disciplines in economics, environmental, and social sciences. The European Commission has estimated that the global economy could increase by $1 trillion after transitioning to a circular economy. Businesses are still hesitant to abandon current unsustainable infrastructure and practices to venture into uncharted territories of a green economy. There are many impediments that are preventing the implementation of a circular economy.⁹
BARRIERS TO A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Current Consumer Culture in the U.S.
American consumer culture is one barrier to achieving a circular economy. A sharing economy, where more goods can be rented rather than permanently bought, can limit the production of new materials that ultimately end up in the waste stream.
Materials-Flow Exceeding Human-Made Boundaries
Another barrier is the possibility that creating a seemingly cyclical system may not solve all our problems. Definitions and boundaries of systematized materials-flow is a human construct. Despite our best efforts, we may still fail to perfectly control materials when nature plays a role and does not adhere to human-made boundaries.
Physical Scale of the Global Economy
The physical scale of the economy, measured by physical material and energy footprint rather than money, is subject to the Jevon’s paradox. The paradox is a rebound effect that causes consumption to rise as a response to the efficiency of a product increasing. For example, as we figure out more efficient ways to use fuel, the demand for the fuel goes up. The extra savings are outweighed by the growth in the fossil fuel industry, which ultimately results in more energy being used. This effect can cause major harm to the environment if unchecked.
Oftentimes, humans tend to problem shift rather than solve waste management issues. Problem shifting is defined as “the potential for an intervention that alleviates one challenge to exacerbate the response to another.”10 For example, industrialized countries may expand environmental protection policies, which lessens their direct environmental impact, but results in a shortage of domestic extractable natural resources. Developing nations then heed the demand and begin sacrificing their own environments in exchange for an economic boost. Overdevelopment in poorer countries desperate for economic growth inevitably leads to a loss of biodiversity, resulting in irreversible damage to their local communities and nullifying much of the progress made.
Evolving Societies & Cultural Differences
Furthermore, what humans consider to be waste is culturally and socially constructed. What we define as trash in one community could be a valuable resource in another. If we began to define categories in the materials flow of a circular economy it would create a lot of discrepancies in the system.
It is also difficult to identify the many phases of the various materials that come through a system. Materials continue to evolve and humans lose or find new uses for them. There are many challenges involved in assessing what materials no longer hold any value or what environmental impact the materials actually have. Without a specific reference scale or adequate definitions, global and local environmental policies are often based on loose estimations and speculation.
There are many other challenges to implementing a circular economy including reliance on fossil fuels, economic growth and issues with supply and demand, discrepancies between industrialized countries and developing countries, and dependence on collaboration between producer and consumers.9
SUSTAINABILITY IN THE PAST
It wasn’t always like this. We didn’t always have an exponentially expanding economy paired with a rapidly shrinking global ecosystem. The current linear model of extracting, producing, distributing, consuming, and disposal, was not the way materials have always flowed. In many cultures, especially prior to the Industrial Revolution, humans allowed the replenishment of natural resources, preventing depletion. Modern environmental policies regulate resources with permits and agencies that make it difficult to manage valuable resources, and easier to consume and throw away. We have shifted from prioritizing the sustainability of natural resources to prioritizing economic growth. With capitalism so deeply embedded in our country, environmental progress and economic reform cannot occur without the approval of the business community and the policymakers who support them.⁹
While Santa Cruz has made great efforts to improve waste management in our county, we still have a long way to go. Grey Bears Recycling Center and Santa Cruz Recycling Art Program (SCRAP) are just some of the local organizations making strides to close the linear waste streams and adopt more practical solutions. Grey Bears, located on the east side of Santa Cruz, is dedicated to providing community services such as food distribution to senior citizens and expanded recycling programs that accept e-waste and styrofoam. They also operate a variety of thrift stores and frequently collect and resell groceries that would otherwise be disposed of from markets.11 SCRAP is a local art center that was granted access to the waste stream at the Santa Cruz Resource Recovery Center to create art that highlights our growing landfill problem and culture of waste.12 Their work is focused on community outreach, organizing “crafternoons” at the Museum of Art and History in downtown Santa Cruz and hosting student field trips to the landfill. While locals have made commendable efforts to improve waste management, there are still many challenges that we face as a community.
One promising solution is being developed by a team called Myceliall Solutions. Previously known as Toadstool Composting, they emerged in 2017 from the UCSC Impact Designs: Engineering and Sustainability through Student Service (IDEASS) program as a response to the contamination issues on campus.
Three of the current team members Sydney Mongiello, Scott Macdonald, and Jacob Somera, spoke with Scientific Slug to give an overview of how they plan to mitigate the UCSC waste stream. Myceliall Solutions is focused on developing a way to remove food-contaminated cardboard and polyurethane plastics from our waste stream. Through the power of fungi, Earth’s original recyclers, the team hopes to find a scalable solution that can match the magnitude of modern-day restoration challenges. Through mycoremediation—the use of fungi to degrade or sequester contaminants in the environment—the project aims to create a cradle-to-cradle solution by using the waste in restoration works and agriculture.
The Myceliall Journey So Far
Myceliall Solutions began with pizza boxes, a common source of contamination in the UCSC waste stream. The team created a goal to integrate the decomposed boxes into UCSC farms and gardens composting. Myceliall Solutions has been working with Environmental Studies faculty member, Gregory S. Gilbert, and regional waste reduction program manager, Leslie O’Malley, to figure out how to make their plans to mitigate climate change into a reality.
Before distance learning halted their progress, the team had begun lab work to test their mycoremediation processes. Oyster and Reishi mushrooms, two species used to decompose contaminated paper products, are members of the Pleurotus genus known for their abilities to break down cellulose and lignin in trees. The team was awarded the UCSC Carbon Fund Grant in 2019, which was used to buy a shed designated for growing mushrooms. The shed has become the center of the project and will soon exhibit a mushroom mural painted by other members of the IDEASS program.
After realizing that mycoremediation of UCSC’s paper waste would be too much to integrate into UCSC garden systems, the team shifted their focus to habitat restoration, a much-needed service after fires ravaged more than 4% of the state last year.13
With the recent addition of Somera to the team, Myceliall Solutions has also been exploring the possibility of degrading polyurethane plastics into less ecologically harmful materials. The species of mushroom capable of breaking down and digesting polyurethane is known as Pestalotiopsis microspora. The fungus was discovered living within fallen ivy foliage in 1996.14 The team also plans to partner with Rachel Carson and Oakes Dining Hall Services to start keeping track of how much contaminated waste is entering our waste stream and figure out how their project can help divert some of that waste from landfills.
Another development the team is hoping to start is to begin working with private investors in 2021 to create a bioreactor capable of processing our paper and plastic waste on campus. With so many new directions developing over the last year, the team is looking forward to getting back into the lab to continue testing ways they can break down waste on a larger scale.
Thoughts on Our Current System
Myceliall Solutions representatives feel that even though the recycling system has the potential to have a beneficial impact, the infrastructure currently set up is just not up to scale. Tons of recyclable materials that China used to accept are now being sent back to the U.S. or other countries willing to do the dirty work.15
MacDonald believes the entire industry is highly disorganized and unprofitable. “We do have regional MRFs (materials recovery facilities), but I don’t think it’s up to scale with how much [waste] we truly are producing. Us sending [our waste] to another country and them refusing it because it’s contaminated really says a lot about where we’re at in this situation right now and how much work we need to do moving forward.”
Mongiello brought attention to the problem shifting that is happening as a result of the UC’s Zero Waste Goals: “UCSC is in a dire waste management problem, and I don’t know if people understand the impacts that it has because it’s literally a ‘city on a hill.’” UCSC now claims to have resolved their recycling problems by transporting the contaminated waste to Marina where they are able to accept it.⁸ The increased distance adds a higher carbon footprint from transportation. Mongiello says, “I see a sustainability issue in that in itself. Granted, I’m happy UCSC has understood a little bit better about what recycling is and how it happens in order to get somebody to accept our recycling. I just wish it was in a different context.” There are discrepancies in the system across the board with varying regulations from county to county. While some UC campuses came closer to their Zero Waste mark, possibly due to local policy differences, ultimately, none succeeded.1
Advice From the Myceliall Solutions Team
So where does this all leave us, and how can we start taking action now? Mongiello believes the biggest thing students can do is to make an effort to cook their own food regularly, rather than buying take-out.
The recent shift towards more single-use items in light of keeping food services sanitary during the pandemic has made an exponentially growing issue even worse. Humankind has taken a few steps backwards in our progress towards becoming waste free.
This can be seen not only in the areas of food service, but also in the medical sector as more and more facemasks are being found in our oceans. We should also consider the implications of energy-intensive vaccination transportation and distribution adding to our global carbon footprint.
Though our individual reduction in plastic use may have a negligible impact on the environment as a whole, our actions speak louder than words. Living by example by reducing our own waste streams can help inspire others and even push corporations to make the switch.
All this information can seem daunting and unfathomable to tackle, but it is important to recognize that until we are willing to start making sacrifices, our linear consumption system will only intensify climate change. In light of the urgency of these issues, Myceliall Solutions had some final suggestions.
Mongiello feels that “plants are relevant in this discussion. To go out after a rainy day and look for mushrooms is literally like finding gold. It makes you feel so connected to the earth. Being able to witness that and recognize it really shifts perspectives on your life and the world. I think in this day and age it’s important to evaluate your values and beliefs.”
Somera feels “there needs to be more competent policy-making. [Being more cognizant] when we go into developing laws is important because all it takes is one loophole and the people who are producing these plastics, they’re going to find it.”
MacDonald left the interview on an existential note saying, “if you want to be around for a long time as a species, if we want to ensure we leave a habitable planet for younger generations, we have to acknowledge that we have harmed the world and take responsibility.” He finds hope in the fact that, even now, we are discovering new species of mushrooms that are starting to adapt to the current state of our planet by decomposing new materials. Like the fungi, we too must be open to change.
- Johnson, L. (2019, March 18). Campus Mixed Recycling Landfilled Since November. City on a Hill Press. https://www.cityonahillpress.com/2019/03/01/campus-mixed-recycling-landfilled-since-november/.
- U.S. EPA. (2021, January 28). National overview: Facts and figures on materials, wastes and recycling. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials
- Leonard, A., & Conrad, A. (2011). The story of stuff: The impact of overconsumption on the planet, our communities, and our health–and how we can make it better. New York: Free Press.
- Turrentine, J. (2020, August 18). The United States is the most Wasteful country in the world. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/united-states-most-wasteful-country-world
- SCC Grand Jury. (2015, September 24). Composting Organic Waste in Santa Cruz County: Time for a Regional Solution. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://www.co.santa-cruz.ca.us/Portals/0/County/GrandJury/GJ2015_final/CompostingOrganicWasteWithResponses.pdf
- Sahni, A., & Latham, S. (2019, May 14). We need your help with campus recycling. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://news.ucsc.edu/2019/05/campus-recycling.html
- Sawano, T. (2020, January 30). UCSC Misses 2020 Zero Waste Goal. City on a Hill Press. https://www.cityonahillpress.com/2020/01/24/ucsc-misses-2020-zero-waste-goal/.
- Guzman, K. M. (2018, September 11). UCSC plans to build RECYCLING yard to SOLVE compost problem. Santa Cruz Sentinel. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.santacruzsentinel.com/2015/03/27/ucsc-plans-to-build-recycling-yard-to-solve-compost-problem/
- Korhonen, J., Honkasalo, A., & Seppälä, J. (2017, July 12). Circular economy: The concept and its limitations. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921800916300325?via%3Dihub
- Ebrary. (n.d.). Problem Shifting. Taking Stock of Industrial Ecology. https://ebrary.net/16769/environment/problem_shifting
- Grey Bears. (n.d.). Our Mission: Connect, Sustain, Recycle. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.greybears.org/
- SCRAP, & S. (n.d.). About Us. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://santacruzcityarts.com/programs/scrap-santa-cruz-recycled-art-program-1#program-info
- Cal Fire. (2021). 2020 Incident Archive. Cal Fire Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. https://www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/2020/.
- Lee, J. C., Strobel, G. A., Lobkovsky, E., & Clardy, J. (1996). Torreyanic acid: a selectively cytotoxic quinone dimer from the endophytic fungus Pestalotiopsis microspora. The Journal of Organic Chemistry, 61(10), 3232-3233.
- Semuels, A. (2019, March 6). Is This the End of Recycling? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china-has-stopped-accepting-our-trash/584131/.