Sustainability Efforts at McMaster vs. Mohawk

By Sherry Chen

I was curious about the attempts that my school, McMaster University, took to decreasing plastics on campus. To my dismay, McMaster does little. One of the few initiatives they have is an Eco-container where you can reuse their containers and it will be cleaned for you, but it is only in three food services on campus. This does not include the Student Center where there is most traffic to buy food. In addition, a Reusable Mug program allows students to use their own mug for any drink on campus for a 10-cent discount. Although a great incentive, I never seen this advertised. 

McMaster is used by over 40 000 people including students, academic and administrative staff. It is understandable that changes in the system, administrative practices, and waste management is difficult. Looking at Mohawk College, a seemingly humble college with one building for the main campus is 30 000 m2. That is 10x bigger than McMaster’s student center (just over 3 000 m2). However, not just the size, but Mohawk’s sustainability efforts are also greatly underappreciated. 

From a trip to Mohawk with Gloria, we soon saw the disparity between Mohawk and McMaster in their efforts for waste management. We will look at the coffee cup waste bin at Mohawk, the compostable cutlery at McMaster, and the waste bin signs at both schools.

First off, the coffee cup waste bin. An image of it is attached below.

Figure 1 | Coffee cup waste bin at Mohawk College.

Considering that there is probably at least 5 people in your lecture hall who drink from single use coffee or tea cups, garbage cans must be soaked. Who wants to sort a soaked garbage can? This coffee cup waste bin solves many problems at once. First, it separates the components reducing the contamination between items. Contamination is a huge problem in the recycling industry. For example, it is better to throw away your recyclables that are contaminated than to recycle them. By sorting the coffee from the cup and lid, each component will be treated according to the school’s or city’s recycling and waste guidelines. Secondly, it can increase waste diversion from landfills. If unsorted, the whole garbage bag of coffee cups and its lid as well as Tim Horton’s donut bags and assignments are destined for the landfill. By sorting the items, the lid can be the only component going to the landfill. The cup may be composted or recycled or sent to the landfill as the last resort. Third, it encourages students and workers at Mohawk to ask what they are using and where it goes at the end of its life cycle. Acknowledging the short life cycle of single-use cups may evoke conversation or feelings regarding wastefulness. Ultimately, the culture of convenience we are all used to is the hardest to change. Changing the culture to students using reusable mugs is a daunting problem. However, this coffee cup waste bin has a great potential. Will McMaster ever adopt this?

This year, Mac’s hospitality service will add compostable cutlery. Compostable goods are another issue pertaining to encouraging single-use plastics. Part of the issue is that it does not encourage mindfulness of bringing your own cutlery. Having a white plastic fork versus a beige compostable fork may not raise ideas or discussions about reducing single-use cutlery. However, it could spark discussions among students on why the school is moving away from using plastics made from crude oil. Perhaps the same argument could be made towards the coffee cup waste bin at Mohawk. An issue with providing compostable cutlery and a system to sort plastic waste may encourage users to continue using single-use items. It seems like solutions incorporating waste management are often a double edge sword. For example, providing compostable cutlery will encourage using it, instead of moving away from single-use items. 

Lastly, a common tactic that organizations try to change is their waste bin signs in hopes that passerby’s will dispose their waste according. Most commonly believed types of waste division are garbage/landfill, recycling, compost/organics. First off, one problem is whether all garbage ends up in landfills. Secondly, recycling can be sorted into paper vs metal depending on the organization. Thirdly, not many places have an organics bin. Apart from these problems, one of the biggest is probably that many are ignorant about which category their waste belongs in. In response, descriptive signs showing accepted items in particular bins are presumed to eliminate improper sorting. 

So far, from the images alone, waste bins at Mohawk are better designed than McMaster to facilitate proper waste disposal. A study found that descriptive signs increased sorting in recycling bins by 77% (see Figure 2).1 Another study found that physical objects above the waste bins at University of Washington increased waste diversion by 21%.2

Figure 2 | Descriptive instructions above the recycling bin which increased correct sorting by 77%.

Currently, McMaster and Mohawk have drastically different waste bins. Figure 3 and Figure 4 show the waste bins each school uses at the cafeteria. Mohawk’s is more descriptive with pictures and physical representations of the item to be disposed at the correct bin. Whereas McMaster’s is not descriptive whatsoever. Although we do not have data on the percent of correctly sorted items between the schools, it is curious how much better waste is sorted with descriptive bins.

Figure 3 | Waste bins at Mohawk. Left is from the hallway and right is from the cafeteria.

Figure 4 | Waste bins at McMaster. Bins are at the Student Centre.

After speaking to representatives at the Sustainability Department, many items are still wrongly sorted but understandably. Some items have too many pieces that need to be separately disposed. Perhaps in addition garbage, organics, and recycling, there should be a bin for items that people do not know where the item belongs. This may lower contamination. 

Although comparing hardly fixes problems, it is hard to not notice the disparity between McMaster and Mohawk’s efforts in waste management. First, there is a problem with the amount of coffee cups at McMaster that are not properly sorted, to which Mohawk has an interesting solution to. Secondly, McMaster will be providing compostable cutlery that helps eliminate plastics but can encourage using single-use items. Lastly, descriptive waste bins should reduce contamination which McMaster should adopt to. Many of these issues require a culture shift, which is built from small changes.