Mini bins make big waste impact on campus

Campus Sustainability Office September 17, 2021
A small 'mini-bin' standing next to other waste reduction materials
The small waste bins, featured here at right, are part of a campus commitment to reducing landfill waste through education and engagement with the campus community. | Photo: Cornell Photography

After a successful pilot in one large administrative building on campus cut landfill waste from offices by half, new "trash mini-bins" have been rolled out across campus in a bid to reduce waste and increase recycling as part of sustainable campus behavior.

The goal?  Reduce landfill waste, and increase recycling.

"The smaller bins encourage people to think about throwing something away," said Bob Pils, Director of Building Care. "The bins essentially help people make a more sustainable choice by making recycling easier, and throwing something in the trash harder."

"The bins essentially help people make a more sustainable choice by making recycling easier, and throwing something in the trash harder."

Mini-bin in a recycling bin
The new system replaced trash and recycling bins of equal size with a smaller landfill bin attached to the side of a recycling bin. | Photo: Campus Sustainability Office

The bins were rolled out across campus after a 2016 pilot with staff in the Humphreys Service Building and Rice Hall demonstrated significant waste reduction and increased recycling rates. 

Pilot demonstrates deep reductions to unnecessary waste, increases to recycling rates

The results of the pilot clearly demonstrated a reduction in landfill waste and better recycling from staff. P ilot participants were provided an introductory email explaining the shift prior to the program, and changes in building landfill waste and recycling were studied over the course of 11 months followed by a post-survey. 

Within three months of the program's introduction, both buildings had reduced landfill waste generation by 55%, and improved waste sorting by 22.5% (meaning fewer recyclable materials were found in the trash). 

Overall waste - both landfill and recycling - was reduced by 39%.  This number is especially important, as it indicates staff chose to make decisions about purchasing and printing that ultimately led to less waste overall.

Shift in responsibility

In addition to changing the size of the bins, the new program requires staff to empty their own recycling and trash into shared waste disposal areas.

"This part of the program is frankly not as popular," said Pils. "There is a perception that this is additional work for staff."

Snapshot of 2016 survey results studying mini-bins efficacy in reducing waste at Cornell
Read an analysis of the 2016 pilot results introducing min-bins at Cornell.  Download PDF

But the mini-bins provide an additional benefit to building care staff - reducing points of contact where germs or contaminated materials might live. As part of a campus-wide push to protect the health of staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, the mini-bins ensure Cornell's custodial teams have fewer points of interaction with potentially contaminated materials such as papers, kleenex, or food wrappers.

Most staff in the pilot indicated they empty the bins once or twice a week. On average, landfill waste in the pilot was reduced by 36lbs per day. 

Reducing waste is key to sustainability

The large majority of office waste is recyclable.  70% of total office waste is suitable for recycling, however, on average in the United States only 7.5% reaches the recycling center.
"Our goal should be reducing overall waste, period" said Spring Buck, Associate Director of Facilities Management Operations. Buck was an early champion of recycling and sustainability initiatives in previous roles in Facilities and Campus Services and is passionate about supporting a vision of a low-waste, sustainable campus. 

"When people are required to take their personal bins to a common area for disposal, there is greater autonomy over waste disposal choices," she said.

"We are helping to create a campus culture of sustainable actions which significantly changes the bottom line for landfill waste."

For information about how to recycle correctly or support for waste and recycling on campus visit Cornell R5 Operations. If you would like a mini-bin for your administrative or employee work space, contact your Building Care Manager to request one.