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Stanford began partnering with recycling and waste management service provider Peninsula Sanitary Service, Inc. (PSSI) in the early 1990s to reduce waste, increase landfill diversion, and move closer to zero waste (defined as at least 90% diversion). Stanford’s waste reduction, recycling, composting, and solid waste program serves all academic and athletic areas, Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE), Faculty Staff Housing, Stanford University School of Medicine, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and all associated construction sites. PSSI also works with campus elementary schools and preschools on zero waste outreach, trainings, and a compost program to collect food scraps and paper towels.


Stanford initiated a Zero Waste Feasibility Study in 2017, which included in-depth analysis and planning to provide more detailed understanding of its waste streams, develop strategies to further reduce overall waste generation, increase diversion (material sent to recycling or composting instead of landfill), and work toward the ultimate goal of zero waste – defined as 10% or less going to landfill. The study was conducted using internal resources and peer reviewed by industry experts.   

Pie chart showing 17% Landfill, 21% Reusable, 36% Compostable, and 26% Recyclable

The Zero Waste Plan prioritizes reduction, spearheaded by initiatives in purchasing and contracts, followed by reuse, recycling, and compost, as indicated by the waste hierarchy. Education and community outreach will help to facilitate progress through every step of the way, to embed responsible resource management and waste minimization behaviors into the campus culture. To inform planning, the university conducted a waste characterization study, building on more than 30 campus audits, to get a detailed picture of the 34% of materials that end up in the landfill stream. This study not only confirmed that more than 75% of what ends up in the landfill could actually be diverted, but it also provided an in-depth look at the types of materials that comprise each stream. Learn more, and read the study. 

Solutions Pathway

The cross-cutting benefits of a comprehensive waste management program include conserving energy, reducing landfilled materials, conserving natural resources by providing recyclable materials to manufacturers, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution from the supply chain. The solutions in the Zero Waste Plan focus on stronger green purchasing policies and increased reuse and composting across Stanford's schools, departments, and buildings, along with enhancing the existing recycling program. Through the year 2023, priorities will focus around piloting zero waste programs across campus to ensure that the holistic program meets the needs of the micro-cultures across Stanford, depending on building type, academic programs, and community needs. The chart below shows the key grouped programs that will steadily improve our diversion rates and reduce landfill rate overtime by 2030. This pathway is subject to change as pilots reveal additional efficiencies.

Table showing cumulative diversion percentages and completion years for various grouped waste reduction programs


Impacts of Chinese Waste Ban

The Chinese Waste Ban has had an impact on the Stanford Recycling Program, but the university is still able to recycle most items. The metals (scrap, aluminum, and tin cans), glass, compost, and construction debris have not been impacted by the Chinese Waste Ban. Additionally, paper and corrugated cardboard can still be recycled, however the business model has shifted. Stanford must now pay to recycle paper, and receives minimal revenue for its cardboard. That said, paper consumption has significantly declined in recent years, while cardboard consumption has increased.

The plastic stream is the most impacted from the Chinese Waste Ban. #1 PETE bottles and #2 HDPE clear and colored plastics can still be recycled, but #1 plastic thermoforms (clamshell to-go containers, berry containers, etc) and plastics 3-7 cannot, although we still accept them in the bins. The domestic plastics markets have been slow to respond, but there are signs of improvement, such as new plastic recyclers opening in the US.

Fluctuations in the market will likely continue as countries adjust to the ban, which is why we encourage reduction as a first step in waste management. Shifting to reusable goods and reducing the amount of waste you generate in the first place is critical to achieving our zero waste goals.