When Julie Muir teaches the class, “Best Practices in Waste Reduction,” she brings props, including a collection of disposable knives, forks and spoons that she distributes for a hands-on exercise.

Julie Muir, back-center, teaches participants in the class, “Best Practices in Waste Reduction,” how to distinguish compostable utensils from those destined for the landfill. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Muir, who is the zero waste manager at Stanford, uses the flatware to teach participants how to distinguish compostable utensils from those destined for the landfill. It can be a challenging task: Some are plastic, while others are made of bio-based materials. Some are made with recycled materials and others contain potato starch. Some are made with compostable material.

As the participants in the Sustainable Stanford class examine the multi-colored utensils, Muir gives them a hint: don’t rely on their color, design or ‘green’ labels for an answer to the compostable vs. landfill question.

“Utensils labeled ‘biodegradable’ or ‘bio-based’ are not compostable,” Muir says. “Flatware made of potato starch and polypropylene is also not compostable. They all have to go into the trash.”

The only utensils that are compostable are the ones that say ‘compostable,’ she explains, which is defined under California law as material that breaks down into soil after 180 days at a commercial composting facility.

Instead of using disposable utensils, Muir suggests people eat with reusable silverware in the office and at campus cafés. It’s a tip that dovetails with Stanford’s annual conservation campaign, whose 2020 slogan is, Say Goodbye to Single Use: Reduce and Reuse.

“It’s one step individuals can take to help Stanford as the university works toward its goal of becoming a zero-waste campus by 2030, defined as diverting at least 90 percent of campus waste from landfills,” she said.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced the goal during his 2018 Academic Council address, which was focused on Stanford’s Long-Range Vision. At the same meeting, he announced the goal of making the campus 80 percent carbon-free by 2025.

Currently, Stanford diverts about 65 percent of campus waste from landfills through waste reduction, reuse, recycling and compost programs.

Getting to zero waste by 2030

Muir, said the “Say Goodbye to Single Use” campaign is just one part of an extensive zero-waste program.

“This year, our program is focused on strengthening our green purchasing policies, enhancing the current recycling program, and increasing reuse and composting across campus buildings, departments and schools,” she said.

In a new report, Stanford Sustainability Goal: Zero Waste by 2030, the university identified 45 campus programs that will guide the university along the path to zero waste, including existing and expanded programs, and new initiatives.

According to the report, which is available here, Stanford is on target to achieve its zero-waste goal by maintaining the best practices of today and introducing new solutions for the coming decade, such as improving recycling and composting programs in cafés and laboratories, and at athletics events.

“It’s essential for everyone in the Stanford community to be involved if we want to meet our goal of zero waste by 2030,” Muir said. “We want to make sure everyone is armed with the best information to support our efforts.”

Say goodbye to single use

During the campaign, Stanford is encouraging everyone to evaluate their use of products designed to be used once and thrown away – including disposable water bottles, coffee cups and utensils – and to switch to reusable ones as much as possible.

After Geeta Patangay took part in the flatware-sorting exercise, she made a resolution that she shared with her family.

“I will make sure when I buy disposable products to look for the word ‘compostable,’ whether they are utensils, cups or plates,” said Patangay, who works in the acquisitions department in Lathrop Library at Stanford.

Aparna Sharma, who also took the class, said she shared the information about the difference between biodegradable and compostable products with colleagues.

“At work, we will keep only reusable plates, cups and silverware,” said Sharma, who is the operations manager at the Robin Li and Melissa Ma Science Library at Stanford. “We will pay more attention when ordering food for office parties to ask the caterer to provide compostable utensils only.”

Other ways to help

Individuals can contribute to Stanford’s zero waste efforts by participating in the campaign, or in other university programs designed to help students, faculty and staff reduce their environmental footprint on campus.

Stanford offers many ways for individuals to learn more and get involved:

  • Take action for a day – focused on waste in March – to support the “50 Days of Action” program leading up to Earth Week. Learn more here.
  • Visit the Sustainable website to learn about campus initiatives in energy, water, transportation, buildings and grounds, food and living, and waste and how you can get involved through Cardinal Green programs. Learn more here.
  • Join My Cardinal Green to set individual sustainability goals, track your progress on personal dashboards, earn points and receive rewards. Learn more here.
  • Join a reusable cup pilot program by downloading the CupClub App. Try out the new system at campus cafes participating in the program. Learn more here.