Strive for zero waste through behavioral and operational strategies that include reduction, reuse and recycling criteria in purchasing decisions, and expand these criteria to encourage social and environmental benefits in the full life cycle of purchased goods and services.
Campus Landfill Waste (tons)
Recycling and Reuse (%)
Soils from Construction Sites
Consumer Items **
Construction and Demolition Debris
- Current Performance
- Future Targets
Global Context, Local Action
The United States is one of the most disproportionately heavy consumers of global resources and generates more waste per person than any other nation on the planet2. At the same time, waste facilities across the country, such as incinerators and landfills, are disproportionately located in communities of color and in low-income communities.3,4 Such trends have motivated many organizations — including Princeton — to change course.
While Princeton has modestly decreased its overall campus landfill waste over time, the total amount of waste generated annually per person today still remains much higher (780 pounds)5 than the average across North American higher education institutions (400 pounds), and higher still than the Northeast regional campus average (580 pounds).6
Short and Long Term Objectives
Given the pressing need for a culture of responsible consumption, our objective is to set ambitious waste reduction and recycling targets, while linking what we purchase with what is reusable and/or recyclable.
Part of responsible consumption also includes ensuring diversity in the vendor pool and addressing social and environmental justice dimensions of products and services. Such concerns can encompass resource extraction, manufacturing, labor and/or disposal practices.
To advance planning, our strategies include a new baseline campus waste study to inform short- and long-term targets.
Princeton’s Progress To Date
Since 2008, the results of Princeton’s efforts to reduce waste and move toward an ethos of conscious consumption have been mixed. The challenges that remain require full community engagement to overcome.
While our overall campus landfill waste volume has decreased by 53 percent since 2008, a significant portion of the reduction can be attributed to COVID-19 in the past year, as the vast majority of students, faculty and staff left campus in March 2020. At the same time, our recycling rate for consumer items (including mixed paper, cardboard, glass, metal and plastic) as of 2020 dropped to 19 percent, which is below the rate it was in 2008. Increasing the rate has been challenging due to contamination of our recycling stream with food scraps and items that are not recyclable in today’s global markets, as well as inconsistencies in messaging and containers that confuse audiences. Given the behavior and infrastructure challenges, general consumption and disposal norms have proven stubbornly tough to shift.
At the same time, we have increased the diversion rate of construction and demolition debris, one of our largest waste streams, from approximately 25 percent in 2008 to an award-winning 99.7 percent as of 2020. We now are aiming to substantially increase reuse of soil on campus from construction projects.
Expanding Sustainable Purchasing
Purchasing is a powerful driver in almost all sustainability action areas: what we buy has profound implications for people and ecosystems locally and globally, all along the supply chain — from production to use to disposal.
In 2008, Princeton’s objective was to encourage social and environmental sustainability in the supply chain when purchasing goods and services. Highlights from 2020 include:
- 98 percent of electronics purchased are EPEAT® registered by spend
- 74 percent of paper purchases meet our standard of 100 percent post-consumer recycled content
- 67 percent of cleaning products purchased are Green Seal® certified by volume
Looking ahead, we strive to incorporate into our purchasing decisions more holistic, full-lifecycle considerations such as land and water used during production, greenhouse gases generated at every stage, and whether items are reusable, recyclable or compostable.
When purchasing food for campus consumption, for example, we will prioritize local, sustainable and plant-based ingredients, with a preference for products that address social inequities and unsafe working conditions, and minimize environmental impacts stemming from water use and greenhouse gas emissions. We will also continue to increase the ranks of diverse suppliers that qualify as minority-owned, woman-owned, LGBTQ-owned and veteran-owned businesses.
Campus Action Items
- Conduct a campus-wide waste audit, with focused studies of Move-out and Reunions, to develop informed waste diversion and reduction targets and strategies.
- Study the feasibility of a materials-sorting facility on campus.
- Advance sustainable procurement through University policies and practices, with the potential to catalyze environmental and social change in supply chains, from producer to consumer.
- Encourage responsible campus events by consistently applying sustainable event guidelines that include preferred caterers, menus and waste-reduction strategies.
- Increase our recycling rate of consumer items through education, standardizing receptacles and labeling, and by returning to multi-stream recycling to reduce contamination.
- Reduce recycling contamination by expanding the collection of food scraps beyond the current dining hall composting program to other strategic locations on campus.
- Increase reuse of a broader range of items on campus through expanding what is collected by the Resource Recovery Program, and optimizing the student Move-out and Resale program, among other efforts.
- Increase reuse of soil from construction projects by expanding our soil reuse yard, minimizing the environmental burden of transporting soil off campus and importing new soil.
- Continue to divert edible food to the community in our efforts to reduce food waste.
- Continue award-winning construction and demolition debris recycling program.
- Continue to expand resource conservation strategies, including composting all leaves and trimmings on-site; reducing unnecessary paper usage; responsibly recycling electronics and accessories; and extending the lifespan of textiles through clothing swaps, repair options and donations, among many others.
- Align effective sustainable purchasing and waste management practices across campus through coordinated departmental action plans.
- Advance evidence-based sustainable purchasing and waste solutions by actively encouraging students, faculty and staff to use the campus as a living lab.
- Reinforce Princeton’s purchasing and waste goals during key programs, including orientation for all students, faculty and staff; Move-in and Move-out; Princeton Preview for undergraduates; visiting weekends for graduate students; residential life opportunities; athletic events; vendor supply fairs and other events.
- Scale action beyond Princeton through engagement with various organizations such as the National Waste & Recycling Association, the Association of New Jersey Recyclers, the Post-Landfill Action Network, and the Stockholm Resilience Center, among others.