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Sustainable Materials Management at ESF

Ecology teaches us that the waste of some serves as a resource for others. There is much to gain from a better understanding of the natural world's material cycles, including how we can lessen our negative impacts on the planet's stressed ecosystems and our own health while also becoming more cost-effective. Sustainable Materials Management builds on an understanding of material cycles in a holistic manner (from cradle to cradle), and aims to minimize unnecessary use of materials and energy through prioritizing upstream strategies like purchasing and design and by optimizing downstream re-purposing and proper disposal of materials.

For decades, ESF has been taking precautions to divert materials from the landfill through purchasing products that minimize costs and impacts and by supporting recycling, composting and other materials repurposing efforts. Nonetheless, we fail in many instances to fully live up to our own aspirations. We can do better!

Below are some features of our campus and county's sustainable materials management program. We encourage our community's input and suggestions (sustainability@esf.edu), as we strive to improve our own operations and teaching environment.

County-Wide Context

Waste management on campus doesn't happen in isolation. ESF is situated within a county (Onondaga) that plays a major role in shaping our campus waste diversion and waste reduction opportunities. The Onondaga County Recycling Recovery Agency (OCRRA) oversees three entities crucial for ESF's sustainable materials management:

  1. a waste-to-energy power plant
  2. a county-wide recycling program
  3. an industrial scale composting program

The first lesson is that materials, even when burned and used to generate electricity, don't disappear. Although almost nothing gets sent to the landfill within Onondaga County, in order to be truly responsible stewards, we still need to minimize what enters the incinerator in the first place.

The second lesson is that what is recyclable in one region (or campus) isn't always recyclable in another. When moving to a new location, one should always ask: “What is recyclable here?" For example, just because styrofoam may be recycled where you are from, doesn’t mean it is recyclable within our county. In fact, within Onondaga it is not. In this regard, recycling can get quite tricky. Thankfully OCRRA has good educational guides to help out, as well as a searchable database for every example you can think of. And when in doubt, it is actually better to throw something in the trash than throwing something non-recyclable in the recycling bin. This will actually avoid contamination of the recycling materials stream and may end up increasing the total amount of materials diverted from the incinerator (or landfill).

Campus Context

Single-stream recycling on campus

We use a single stream recycling system throughout the entire ESF campus. This means that paper, metals, and plastics are all mixed together and picked up by “Waste Management Corp.” together. The materials then get sorted at the county's recycling facility in Liverpool.

However, you may have noticed an odd hodge-podge of different bins and signage on campus. We know: it’s confusing! And we're working on it. In the coming months, we'll try to make it easier on you by making the bins and signage more uniform/consistent throughout the entire campus, simplifying the point of use process for disposing of recyclables.


In 2014 we removed trash cans and recycling bins from most classrooms on campus, following a pilot trial on campus, and also having learned from a similar experience at Onondaga Community College. The idea is simple: you bring it in; you bring it out! Locations for disposal of trash and recyclable materials are instead situated in centralized and visible locations in the corridors of our buildings. This saves time for our custodial staff, saves on trash and recycling bags, and contributes to improved recycling rates.


Have an event? A meeting? And do not want to use disposable dishware? This program allows individuals, both staff and students, to borrow dishware from the Trailhead Cafe for up to 40 people for an event for free. Return them to the Trailhead for cleaning when the event is completed.


The ESF Undergraduate Student Association (USA) has a by-law that prohibits the use of non-reusable dishware or utensils. This policy encourages students to bring their own utensils, plates and mugs to events around campus! Please encourage event organizers and participants to abide by this policy.

More can be done at ESF to help event organizers host eco-friendly events. Stay tuned for an expansion of our green events initiatives!