Sustainability Series Part IV: Waste Management and Sustainability Education in the University Environment

By Luke Morales

Many universities may be regarded as small cities due to their large size, and campuses oftentimes exert similar environmental impacts as these cities (Barros et al., 2020; Dahlawi & El Sharkawy, 2020). Large population levels may produce different kinds of waste, along with the consumption of materials and resources such as water, paper, and electricity. Therefore, using sustainable measures in these institutions is important. In this paper, I will establish the relevance of municipal solid waste (MSW) and the importance of MSW management in the university, elaborating on the latter to reveal options for integrated waste management systems to be successful. I will then examine two pedagogical approaches to sustainability education on plastic waste management among university students, and conclude by discussing policies and practices, along with research implemented and conducted at the Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná in Brazil in the hope of providing just a few models of action. 

Municipal solid waste (MSW) consists mainly of several recyclable materials (i.e. paper, cardboard, and plastic) (Dahlawi & El Sharkawy, 2020). By establishing the problem of plastic waste specifically and its implications throughout this sustainability series, it becomes easy to apply what has been learned to and see similar issues with the improper disposal of other man-made waste, such as paper and cardboard. Within university campuses, MSW generates from several facilities, a couple of which being offices and cafeterias, and without proper MSW management procedures, these facilities run the risk of negatively impacting the environment (Dahlawi & El Sharkawy, 2020). Beginning in 2017 Dahlawi & El Sharkawy examined MSW composition and management practices at the main campus of Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University (IAU) in Saudi Arabia. The MSW samples were collected from the college buildings, administrative buildings, and services buildings at least one time per week during a full academic term of the 2017-2018 academic year (Dahlawi & El Sharkawy, 2020).  

The data collected revealed that 80% of wastes were recyclable and 19% were compostable, with only 1% of recorded waste categorized as non-recyclable (Dahlawi & El Sharkawy, 2020). Concurrent with the various environmental consequences outlined earlier in this series, insufficient and improper waste management may also lead to adverse effects such as the attraction of insects and rodents, flooding of drainage sewers, and the increasing possibility of fire explosions (Dahlawi & El Sharkawy, 2020). Being that most of the waste generated from the campus was recyclable, the importance of waste characterization becomes evident in helping to understanding the pattern of waste generation, to avoid its mixing with other types of wastes, and to effectively implement sustainable waste management programs in the university environment (Dahlawi & El Sharkawy, 2020).  

A study by de Vega et al. gathered waste management data at the Campus Mexicali of the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), located in Mexico. Published in 2008, the purpose of the study was to set the basis for implementation of a waste management program at the campus. According to the researchers, the Mexicali campus produced 1 ton of solid wastes per day, with over 65% of these wastes being recyclable or potentially recyclable (de Vega et al., 2008). However, municipal waste collection services did not provide said service to universities; it was the responsibility of the university to contract private companies for waste collection (de Vega et al., 2008). But for integrated waste management systems to be successful, universities must first carry out waste characterization studies such as this one in order to have the data necessary to propose proper waste management policies and practices (de Vega et al., 2008). 

In Mexicali and in many other Mexican cities, waste is not segregated before collection and processing, and prior to this study, the only published characterization study relating to Mexican universities was one from 2006, examining waste composition of the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional (de Vega et al., 2008). In their research, de Vega et al., found that 33% of the waste generated in the administration and academic buildings was potentially recyclable, also claiming that, if paper did not get mixed with other waste such as leftover food, this percentage could have been higher (de Vega et al., 2008). The lack of characterization studies in Mexican universities reveals a need for further research, and it is important to note that, when implementing a sound waste management program, awareness about waste recycling is critical among both university staff and students (Dahlawi & El Sharkawy, 2020). Considering these two factors, a problem is brought about: in regard to recycling, how are people supposed to know what goes where? 

Cheung et al., in their research, studied “a new plastic recycling bin (PRB) and poster interventions on the enhancement of university hall residential students’ proenvironmental knowledge, attitudes, and intended behaviors (KAB) and actual recycling behaviors” (2018, p. 1038). Prior research has shown that posters could potentially be used as a low-cost method for increasing recycling practices among individuals, as high levels of knowledge of recycling may lead to more environmentally responsible behaviors (Cheung et al., 2018). However, knowledge of available recycling practices and facilities is also a factor in proenvironmental behaviors, as is convenience, being that recycling requires investment of time, space, money, and effort (Cheung et al., 2018). In fact, recycling behavior is influenced by many additional factors, including the extent of environment-related awareness and knowledge, attitudes toward recycling, social norms and external pressures, and socioeconomic status (Cheung et al., 2018).  

The study showed that, when combined with poster intervention, the PRB showed positive enhancements in KAB and significant improvements in recycling quality (Cheung et al., 2018). This is in part due to the PRB containing more compartments for waste storage while also teaching bin users to implement proper recycling steps (Cheung et al., 2018). Alongside the informative poster, a feedback poster was also used as initiative for the students to practice proper recycling methods (Cheung et al., 2018). The poster contained the weekly quality rankings of the residential halls being studied, and the study results showed that the feedback even boosted the recycling quality in one of the residential halls (Cheung et al., 2018). An ultimate conclusion of the study was that “to enhance the quality of plastic recycling, further education of university students is required” (Cheung et al., 2018, p. 1042). I will generalize this statement to also include enhancing the quality of proenvironmental knowledge, attitudes, and intended behaviors; thus, it is valuable to consider pedagogical approach when looking to teach university students on topics relating to sustainability. 

A paper published in 2017 by Yeung et al. aimed to compare the learning outcomes of gaming simulation (GS) and guided inquiry (GI) in sustainability education on plastic waste management. GSs combine key features of simulations with games, creating a single tool that may foster an efficient learning environment (Yeung et al., 2017). More specifically, a GS is an artificial environment resembling reality that allows participants to experience, in this case, the functions of sustainability through a dynamic experience (Yeung et al., 2017). Inquiry learning, on the other hand, fosters active learning by having students seek solutions to identified problems (Yeung et al., 2017). In other words, “students mimic the practice of a scientist to generate knowledge, enabling hypotheses to be tested by experimental data analysis” (Yeung et al., 2017, p. 1042). 

As stated previously, education plays an important role in the sustainable development of society, and with education of sustainable development (ESD) on the rise within school curricula, it becomes especially important among higher education to equip future leaders of society with knowledge, attitudes, values, and skills that lead to a sustainable future (Yeung et al., 2017). Therefore, considering that people have a variety of learning styles, and considering that a one-size-fits-all approach to a topic so critical to the viability of our future is ill-advised, mainstream pedagogical practices among higher education institutions are in need of change, potentially by incorporating more holistic approaches to learning, such as project-based learning (Thomas, 2014). In light of this, Yeung et al. created an 8-hour ESD program with two different teaching approaches, developed to educate participants on the current situations of plastic waste management in Hong Kong specifically. 

In the GS, students participated in a role-playing simulation of a city. They all began as immigrants and fulfilled their citizen roles, working jobs and interacting with various spots such as schools, factories, shops, etc. The teacher and instructors, to facilitate the development of the city, acted as leaders, such as the mayor, facility owners, schoolmasters, etc. Throughout the simulation, various obstacles would come about as a result of the increase in plastic waste by students’ choices. For example, the landfill of the city would be filled with plastic bags thrown away by shopping participants, as represented by a paper box in the classroom. In response, the students would then have to complete additional tasks, such as voting for a waste treatment facility, listening to invited guest talks on plastic waste management, and engaging with recycling campaigns in order to facilitate collective decision-making among citizens. At the end of the GS, there was a 30-minute debriefing for participants to reflect upon their actual behaviors in reality when compared with their wasteful lifestyles in the simulation. Debriefing after GSs is important because it allows participants to interpret their experience within the simulation in terms of cognition, emotion, social interaction, system process, etc.; debriefing allows for the personalization of students’ experiences while also allowing them to gain insights that can apply to their real lives (Yeung et al., 2017). 

For the GI approach, students were divided into working groups led and facilitated by one instructor. They were tasked with actively seeking answers by way of on-site observation, hands-on investigation, and data collection. Following each task, students had 30 minutes to discuss and analyze the data they collected, and they would then report their findings and share their ideas with their peers. 

The pre- and post-questionnaires showed significant increases in student scores for both GS and GI groups in terms of knowledge and intended behaviors (Yeung et al., 2017). For example, both groups demonstrated significant improvements in general knowledge of waste management in Hong Kong; of the reduce, reuse, and recycle concept; and of plastic waste classification (Yeung et al., 2017). In fact, almost all students from both GS and GI groups could remember what they learned in the program, and they mostly attributed their knowledge acquisition to the collaborative and active learning in the program (Yeung et al., 2017). Though there were limitations associated with the study, such as confounding variables among students (ability to learn, attention span, readiness to adapt values), the assessment of students’ behaviors through a pen-and-paper test, and the challenge in singling out the effects of specific elements of teaching approaches (Yeung et al., 2017), the effective pedagogical elements in the two groups may act as a model when considering future research involving ESD pedagogy in higher education. 

Increasing education on topics of sustainability may also result in more universities adopting effective sustainability policies and practices, such as those from the Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná (UTFPR). A study by Barros et al., published in 2020, sought to present environmentally sustainable practices on UTFPR campuses, and the introduction of reusable plastic cups specifically at the Ponta Grossa (PG) campus was chosen for researchers to conduct a life cycle assessment (LCA) to measure the potential environmental impacts of the use of these reusable plastic cups. LCAs are standardized and holistic methodology for observing environmental consequences and potential impacts of the life cycle of a product (González-García et al., 2014). They can be used to encourage eco-friendly practices and decision-making, and they can promote the adoption of more sustainable lifestyles (Barros et al., 2020). 

Barros et al., decided to pick the PG campus for this research because of it being one of the biggest campuses of UTFPR, its distance from the city center and residences (thus keeping students at the university all day), it acting as a pioneer in selective waste collection in 3 categories (recyclable, organic, and waste), and it having researchers who work with LCAs (Barros et al., 2020). Following the introduction of the reusable plastic cups in 2018, as briefly mentioned above, there was an 87.92% reduction in the volume of waste from disposable cups from the previous year (Barros et al., 2020). In 2019, the reduction was 92.86% (Barros et al., 2020). However, LCA study revealed that with the introduction of the reusable plastic cups, water consumption and effluent generation increased at UTFPR due to the water needed to wash the cups (Barros et al., 2020). In response, the university developed a project to minimize its water consumption by introducing developments such as rainwater collection systems in university buildings; specialized water-saving faucets; and a change in the culture among students and faculty, who were changing their behavior in the use of the cups (Barros et al., 2020). 

Looking at other examples of sustainability initiatives by UTFPR may also prove beneficial. For instance, the university has incorporated and LCA-based teaching practice via an industrial engineering course. In the course, “students not only acquired knowledge and developed new skills about environmental sustainability issues but also the industry noticed potential contributions to improve its products’ environmental performance” (Barros et al., 2020, p. 848). Additionally, coupled with awareness campaigns for students, professors, and staff to mitigate energy consumption, another example of a sustainability initiative involved the university replacing fluorescent light bulbs with LED ones with the secondary objective of reducing the hazardous waste contained in the fluorescent lights (Barros et al., 2020). As Yeung et al.’s study may be used as a model for pedagogical approaches to teach sustainability, some of the initiatives by UTFPR may be used as models for other universities that either have not yet implemented effective sustainability policies and procedures, or for universities that are looking to incorporate additional sustainability practices. 

De Vega et al. explain that “because colleges and universities have the moral and ethical obligation to act responsibly towards the environment, they would be expected to be leaders in the movement for environmental protection” (de Vega et al., 2008, p. S22), and environmental protection includes responsible waste management. In putting an end to this series on the topic of sustainability at the university level, it is my hope that these words work to empower change within the institutions of higher education specifically, so that they may be models for future educators, politicians, activists, and others. If institutions remain unchanged, it is then my hope that these words will contribute to the advocacy of youth worldwide in mandating this change for the health and safety of not only our planet but of the people who will be here still when one institutional leader gets recycled for the next. I request that these institutions take a moment to truly analyze the policies they currently have in place, and to ask themselves: is this all simply a performance? 




De Vega, A. C., Benítez, S. O., & Ramírez Barreto, Barreto, M. E. R. (2008). Solid waste characterization and recycling potential for a university campus. Waste Management, 28, pp. S21–S26. 

Barros, M. V., Puglieri, F. N., Tesser, D. P., Kuczynski, O., & Piekarski, C. M. (2020). Sustainability at a Brazilian university: Developing environmentally sustainable practices and a life cycle assessment case study. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 21(5), pp. 841–859. 

Cheung, T. Y., Fok, L., Cheang, C.-C., Yeung, C. H., So, W.-M. W., & Chow, C.-F. (2018). University halls plastics recycling: A blended intervention study. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 19(6), pp. 1038–1052. 

Dahlawi, S., & El Sharkawy, M. F. (2021). Assessment of solid waste management practice in the university campus. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 22(3), pp. 561–575. 

González-García, S., Gomez-Fernández, Z., Dias, A. C., Feijoo, G., Moreira, M. T., & Arroja, L. (2014). Life Cycle Assessment of broiler chicken production: A Portuguese case study. Journal of Cleaner Production, 74, pp. 125–134. 

Thomas, I. (2014). Special Issue—Pedagogy for Education for Sustainability in Higher Education. Sustainability, 6(4), pp. 1705–1708. 

Yeung, S.-K., So, W.-M. W., Cheng, N.-Y. I., Cheung, T.-Y., & Chow, C.-F. (2017). Comparing pedagogies for plastic waste management at university level. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(7), pp. 1039–1059. 


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