University Housing takes sustainable move-out to a national stage

by Jill Sakai

UW–Madison efforts to reduce housing move-out waste – and give students a real-world opportunity to learn about sustainability – are headed to a national stage this week.

A team is presenting Oct. 11 at the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), held in Baltimore, Md. Breana Nehls and Laura Shere from University Housing are part of a panel on “Campus and Community Involvement in Move-Out Waste Reduction Programs.” Cathy Middlecamp from the Office of Sustainability is moderating the panel, which also includes a staff member from Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

Their presentation will focus on UW–Madison’s residence hall Sustainability Move-Out program, which engages Housing residents, volunteers, and a host of campus and community partners to donate and recycle unwanted items rather than throw them away. The program diverts more than 100,000 pounds of material from the landfill each year.

Student move-out presents a logistical challenge that is common to most residential campuses, says Nehls, Housing’s sustainability and communications coordinator. Waste diversion programs are widespread at other schools. But UW–Madison has taken things a step further by turning the process into an educational experience as well.

“It’s more than just people getting rid of their stuff,” Nehls says. “We really want to share the student involvement piece of Move-Out.”

University Housing has partnered with two faculty members to integrate the move-out program into two courses. Students who provide volunteer staffing support at the recycling and donation sites receive academic incentives, as well as a “way for them to put into practice what they’ve learned all semester,” Nehls says.

Students provide more than half of the volunteer hours needed to run Sustainability Move-Out. And since nearly all of them are underclassmen, the experience helps create a culture of sustainability on campus.

“It’s not just about the waste diversion, it’s not just about the money we save,” Nehls says. “Those are great, but a lot of it is about the student experience and what they take away.”

The team credits campus support with helping them reach a position where they can influence peer institutions. The Sustainability Move-Out program received an Administrative Improvement Award in 2015, followed by a supplemental grant that University Housing used to enhance and document the program. Shere and Nehls say the resulting manual will ensure the program’s continuity at UW–Madison, while helping schools across the country – and beyond – in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.

“We can share the logistics and operational pieces of this, but also the human component – why this all matters,” Nehls says.