Through a new campus initiative, UW-Madison will be more sustainable due to one object: cardboard.
Starting with the We Conserve program — which reduced campus energy use by an additional 25 percent relevant to 2006 rates — UW-Madison launched the Green Fund in 2017, which provides financial support to student-initiated projects aiming to make the campus more sustainable, through the Office of Sustainability.
“The Green Fund is a great way for students to tangibly implement their ideas for sustainability on campus,” Associated Students of Madison Sustainability Committee Chair Sanauz Alaei said in an email. “In many situations, money is the limiting factor when attempting to implement change, especially when it comes to facilities on campus. This is why the Green Fund is so unique and instrumental in reducing UW-Madison’s environmental footprint.”
Last year, recycling became more difficult because of a radical policy change in China, and some of the nation’s recyclable material has nowhere to go. In an effort to promote its anti-pollution campaign, China has banned imports of goods such as plastics and papers, as well as enacted stricter rules for what materials it will accept.
“That has shifted the global market quite significantly,” Green Fund manager Ian Aley said. “So there is a much lower tolerance for contamination.”
The university now will pay to recycle papers that used to generate revenue.
“This program is actually more about avoiding having to pay to recycle to things than it is about to try to generate a lot more funds,” Aley said.
To carve out a more sustainable path in the recycling system, a group of campus members came together to pilot a cardboard recycling program at Gordon Avenue Market.
“Gordon Dining is one of the locations on campus that produces a lot of cardboard because they are a production facility for food,” Aley said. “Cardboard is used very often as the packaging material for food ingredients.”
Under the team’s initiative, they decided to implement a compactor large enough to pack cardboard and then deliver it to a materials recovery facility for processing, which reduces costs.
“We weren’t able to do it in the past because the compactor wasn’t large enough and nobody could take the small amount that we gave them every day,” said Greg Heintz, the unit manager at Gordon Avenue Market. “So this way, we collected for multiple times in this bigger unit and only once or twice a week the cardboard is taken away.”
Yet, the contamination tolerance for cardboard recycling is less than 1 percent.
“We needed to make sure that we weren’t throwing garbage into it,” said Meg Dipoto, one of the student interns at the Office of Sustainability. “You would think that’s easy, but that’s not. It’s hard to get this message across.”
Alaei said there is also “definitely room for improvement” in making the general student population aware of Green Fund initiatives, such as the cardboard recycling project. However, she believes change is coming.
“As the Green Fund progresses, I think students will become more aware of it as they start to see the impacts it is having on campus,” Alaei said. “Already, the solar panels on Gordon, a project from last year between the student organization, Helios, and the Green Fund, is gaining attention while reducing our environmental impact.”
The cardboard recycling initiative does not only trim UW-Madison’s economic footprint but also increases sustainable practices on campus.
“You can make a physical lasting change in this university that goes beyond your four years here,” said Dipoto.