ABCs of Waste

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The ABCs of Waste is an initiative to improve recycling in UW–Madison academic buildings and reduce the university’s contribution to landfill waste.

The Office of Sustainability, in partnership with WE CONSERVE and Facilities, Planning, and Management, is conducting trash audits to assess the waste streams of different campus buildings for the amount and types of recyclables that end up in the trash.

With this information, we are working with building managers and occupants to improve campus trash and recycling systems.

What is a trash audit?

A trash audit involves sorting through the waste of a particular building or living space to determine what is being thrown away, whether or not waste is properly sorted, and which items that could be recycled are not. It is also an opportunity to evaluate distinct waste streams such as mixed paper, office paper and commingled recycling (cans, glass and plastic).

In the following video, hear UW–Madison student Miles Tryon-Petith describe our trash audit process and what we’ve found.

What have we found?

During 2014, we audited 15 academic buildings and handled more than 1.5 tons of waste. This map shows how much waste and recycling are generated each day in different UW–Madison buildings.

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From our trash audit data, we can calculate contamination rates and diversion rates for various buildings.

Contamination rate is the percentage of materials in the trash that could have been recycled. Common items include yogurt cups, plastic food containers, and coffee cup lids and sleeves. From our 2014 audit data, we found an average contamination rate of 23 percent in UW–Madison academic buildings.

Diversion rate is the percentage of the total waste stream that did not end up in a landfill (i.e., was recycled). For example, a diversion rate of 100 percent would mean the university had achieved “zero waste,” where nothing is sent to a landfill. The 2014 audit data showed an overall diversion rate of 35 percent in the 15 buildings surveyed.

Next steps

We are now working with multiple campus partners to provide information and support for ongoing initiatives and establish communication networks among campus entities involved with waste and recycling.

Through these efforts, we are educating faculty, staff and students about waste management and developing sustainable strategies to reduce waste in campus buildings.


“Part of the incredible value of this project is the team—the community—that continues to grow and drive the effort to campaign towards zero waste.”

 —Miles Tryon-Petith

To find out what is recyclable check out our recycling guide.

For more information about the ABCs of Waste initiative, contact Miles Tryon-Petith.