As one of the University of California’s larger and faster-growing campuses, UCI is emerging as a trailblazer in the system’s collective mission to build a more sustainable future by ensuring that at least 90 percent of its waste is recycled and doesn’t end up in a landfill.
UCI’s goal, however, is zero waste. It’s a gargantuan task and wouldn’t be possible to achieve without the concerted efforts of various departments and individuals who, year after year, work together to create an increasingly eco-friendly and waste-conscious university.
Lin Tang, director of UCI Dining Services, has been helping the campus meet its recycling objectives for 20 years and has witnessed the remarkable evolution of its approach to waste management.
“We didn’t have a lot of these policies back then,” she recalls. “But over the years, our policy has gotten more and more advanced.”
Tang explained that UCI now contracts with the private catering corporation Aramark for dining services, which has helped the university nearly achieve its goal of zero-waste dining facilities, with 97 percent of all products being either reusable or recyclable.
Devin Grabiec, a UCI alumnus who now works as a sustainability coordinator for Aramark, said that the campus has steadily transitioned away from plastic, single-use items over the past decade.
“We once were giving away 500,000 plastic water cups per year,” he says. These were eliminated in 2018, as were plastic straws the following year. UCI has also successfully phased out plastic bags since 2018, replacing them with bags made of compostable materials, even at such campus restaurants as Subway and Panda Express.
According to Rachel Harvey, UCI’s sustainability program manager for housing, the university is well on its way toward accomplishing its recycling goals. “We are at 79 percent diversion, meaning only 20 percent of campus [housing] waste goes to the landfill,” she says.
In addition, UCI has implemented innovative initiatives – such as Peter’s Exchange, an on-campus thrift store, and the integration of Goodwill bins in housing communities – to prolong the life of products that would otherwise be tossed out, contributing to the annual diversion of over 70 tons of items.
“We are working to reduce single-use products, like plastic ketchup and mustard containers, so at our events we have condiments available with a bowl and spoon – and pitchers instead of single-use creamer packages,” Harvey says. “Every campus has been tasked with that, and UCI has been ahead of the curve and willing to make those changes as they come.”
She adds that UCI’s next major goal, along with the rest of the UC campuses, is to reach an agreement with beverage companies such as PepsiCo Inc. to remove all plastic bottles from dining outlets and vending machines.
“We’re using the purchasing power of the UC system to make this statewide change,” Harvey explains, noting that every residence hall on campus now has its own water bottle filling station, with 226 total.
UCI’s commitment to sustainability is also reflected in its Green Captain internship program, which began in 2013 and educates interns about various aspects of sustainability within the dining context. Aramark’s Grabiec completed the internship while a student and now helps run the program.
According to Tang, the university’s quest for new recycling and composting solutions has been successful mainly because of the close relationships UCI has developed with suppliers and its ongoing efforts to engage and educate the campus community.
“We are all actively seeking to meet that one goal of zero waste,” she says. “It’s a 100 percent team effort.”