Sustainable Waste Management Frequently Asked Questions

General FAQs

MIT seeks to re-imagine its waste management systems and behaviors in order to safely eliminate waste generation and drive a circular flow of materials from inputs through outputs, procurement through disposal.  The Office of Sustainability in partnership with the Department of Facilities and individual dorms, departments, labs and centers is testing implementation of new waste collection and education infrastructure, designed in partnership with Recycle Across America.  Below are FAQs related to locations that are using these enhanced waste management systems of bins, labels, signs and posters.  As best practices are tested and demonstrated, MIT seeks to continue to expand the implementation of these systems across campus.

What do the bins, labels, signs, and posters that MIT is testing look like?

Bin system with labels

student assembles three bin waste station

Wall signage

poster of compostable itemswall signage recyclingfood waste wall signage

Educational posters

poster demonstrating how to sort waste

 

Why are there centralized waste stations instead of desk side baskets?

Research has shown that centralized waste stations are better for decreasing waste stream contamination (i.e. placing the wrong material into the wrong bin such as a banana peel into the trash or recycling when it belongs in the FOOD ONLY) by encouraging people to use clearly labeled centralized bins in lieu of a single stream basket. This system encourages practices that can lead to healthier workplaces and generate waste materials that can be recycled and reprocessed rather than landfilled or incinerated. Furthermore, the reduction in overall number of bins enables safer occupational health for custodial teams who need to bend less frequently for collecting material from desk side bins. Even better, think of walking to throw away your trash or recycling as a chance to exercise and move around!

Peer institutions such as Emory, Brown, and many others have adopted this policy for these reasons.

 

  • See this study from Media Lab that reduced contamination by using centralized waste stations 
  • Dartmouth College reduced the amount of trash it sent to landfills by 200 tons in 2010, the first year of its desk side self-service program 
  • Sonoma State University increased its recyclable office waste by nearly 100 tons, and increased its recycling rate by 55% within one year of implementing desk-side self service 1 
  • University of North Carolina at Charlotte increased recycling by 15% and eliminated 16,000 trash can liners from the supply chain and waste stream in 2011, the first year of its desk-side self-service program 
  • University of Minnesota at Duluth reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills by nearly 20% and eliminated an estimated 130,000 trash can liners from its supply chain and waste stream in 2014, the first year of its desk-side self-service program 
  • Other universities that have desk-side self-service programs, including (but not limited to) Emory University, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Penn State University, University of Colorado Boulder, and University of Kansas. Schools that are not AAU members with desk-side self-service programs include, but are not limited to, Appalachian State University, Clarkson University, Mills College, Portland Community College, Portland State University, Swarthmore College, and Syracuse University.
     
Tell me more about the bins at the centralized waste station.

The bin systems were chosen following a process that engaged stakeholders and experts to identify the best size, color, and system to impact behavior, and support a circular system. Each of the three-bin systems are arranged in the same order to create a uniform experience for sorting waste no matter the location in the buildings. 

Additionally, free-standing station locations will be identified by visibility, accessibility, and traffic and tested during a trial period. Due to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and density of campus, this trial period is flexible.  Feedback from each space based on the trial period will inform more permanent station locations. In addition to being color coded based on material accepted, each bin is equipped with signage that includes do’s and don’ts to help users know which bin fits their needs. 
 

How were designs chosen for bin signs?

Like the bins, the labels and signage are the result of a collaborative process that engaged the Department of Facilities, MITOS, and non-profit Recycle Across America (RAA). RAA is driven by the mission to standardize waste labels so that everyone understands how to “recycle right” no matter where they are. Recycling right often means keeping non-recyclables out of that stream so as to not contaminate it. Years of test cases have driven RAA’s signage designs and the nonprofit worked with MIT to select which items and language would best fit MIT. The resulting bin labels and signs are designed to minimize recycling and food waste stream contamination and respond to the needs of the community and items most likely to be used in these buildings. For example, you will notice different do and don't items listed on signage for living and working spaces, based on findings from MIT campus waste audits.  A team of behavioral economists from MIT Sloan who specialize in messaging are also helping to inform signage to be more clear about the intended action (see this new poster informed by Sloan researchers).

 

What role does data play in informing the signs and bins?

Data is an essential part of decision making around bins, signage, and other tactics to design out waste from campus. Findings from waste audits conducted by Waste Watchers, MITOS, and our partners drove the decisions around bin style selection and also helped to identify what items most commonly contaminate recycle streams on campus. Those items are highlighted on signage as examples of what not to put in a certain bin. 

Where does our waste go once it leaves these bins?

All major campus waste streams (recycling, trash and food waste) are collected from bins by MIT Custodial Services or Residential Life housekeeping teams and taken by these teams to each building’s loading dock.

Recycling: Our recycling is picked up by our hauler, RTS, and sent to Save That Stuff and Casella Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) so that some materials are collected and made into different products. If you’re interested in learning more, you can watch this YouTube video.

Trash: Most of the trash is incinerated in a waste to energy facility or sent to transfer stations before being sent to landfills. Primary facilities include Wheelabrator Saugus in Saugus, MA- Waste to Energy (WTE), Brookline Transfer Station in Brookline, MA, and BFI Waste Systems Transfer Station in Roxbury, MA.

Food Waste: Food waste is sent to the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District (GLSD) to be recycled into clean energy using a process called Anaerobic Digestion. First, MIT sends its food waste to a facility in Charlestown, MA for initial processing where it is then sent to the GLSD facility in North Andover, MA. See this site for more information about where MIT sends its food waste: Food Waste Processing Facility.

There have been questions about whether this co-digestion process is more environmentally and economically efficient than traditional composting. A study initiated by the EPA has determined that anaerobic digestion at GLSD is a higher and better use for fighting climate change than traditional compost. Read about the EPA lifecycle assessment here.

How much waste does MIT generate every year?

MIT Material Matters is a data visualization that provides monthly waste totals for the major waste streams on campus.  The visualizations are continuing to be updated as new data becomes available.  
 

E37 + E38 FAQs

MIT’s Site 4 (E38 + E37) will become a new front door to the campus, including a Grad Tower, MIT Welcome Center, MIT Admissions, MIT Office of Sustainability, Environmental Solutions Initiative, JWAFS, Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Childcare Center represents the diversity of MIT’s community including prospective students and visitors, innovation experts, sustainability practitioners, undergraduate/graduate students, graduate residents and staff.

Using Site 4 as a demonstration site, MIT seeks to re-imagine its waste management systems and behaviors in order to safely eliminate waste generation and drive a circular flow of materials from inputs through outputs, procurement through disposal.

What kind of things are being tested in E37/E38 with regards to designing out waste?

The new waste collection stations developed by the Site 4 Waste Management Working Group, are now in place, representing a key step in designing out waste for MIT with pilot testing in Site 4:

  • These “three bin” stations (recycling, trash, and food waste) are centrally located in each suite/open office space instead of within every individual office and room. (See “Why are there centralized waste stations instead of desk side baskets?” below for more info)
  • This national best practice of centralizing bin stations can be more effective at ensuring that clean materials can be collected and fully recycled. 
  • Only these centralized stations will be serviced by Custodial Services (no more desk-side pickup).

Other innovative features of this new system:

  • Signs and labels have been designed to meet a national waste signage standard being advanced in partnership with Recycle Across America, a national non-profit advocacy group.
  • MIT campus waste audits data collected by MIT Waste Watchers has informed the most frequently disposed of items listed on the signs and bins (what’s allowed and not allowed in each bin)
  • Food waste collection service by MIT is included in these buildings—the first office/academic spaces on campus.
  • QR codes on the signs link to web-based, frequently updated FAQs.
  • The stations are light and flexible so they can be tested in different locations to best meet user needs (3 bins must stay together as one station).
  • Occupant experience will be a key measure of success of this waste program.  Surveys will be distributed in fall 2021 to inform how the systems can be improved to better meet user needs.

 

What is the E37/E38 materials management policy?

The E37/E38 materials management policy is a commitment made to design out waste by the academic, residential, and administrative representatives of the buildings in collaboration with MIT’s Department of Facilities and Office of Sustainability. This policy establishes the infrastructure and behavioral changes necessary for establishing E37/ E38 as a campus test bed and demonstration site for designing out waste and driving circular economies. The Site 4 Waste Management Working Group is guiding implementation of the policy and feedback loops among tenants; this group includes representatives from each operational group within Site 4. The policy is a living document that will be modified over time while providing standardized practices for centralized waste stations, material handling and custodial practices, specialty recycling streams, loading dock use, shared spaces and kitchens, guidance by department, restrooms, and communication and education. You can receive a copy of the latest policy draft by emailing MITOS (sustainablemit@mit.edu).

Will desk side trash and recycling bins be serviced and cleaned by Custodial Services?

MIT and Site 4 DLC leadership has committed to showcasing sustainability and innovation practices throughout Site 4.   A group of representatives from each Site 4 DLC, called the Site 4 Waste Management Team, has collaborated to develop and design a waste collection system for E38 that advances MIT sustainability goals.  Based on a campus-wide evaluation of waste challenges, needs and opportunities, starting fresh in a new space is one of the most optimal times to shift to new waste infrastructure and practices.  

As part of the Site 4 set-up, desk side bins have not been provided and will not be serviced by Custodial Services.  Custodians will only service the centralized food waste, recycling, and trash bins.  A new food waste collection service is now provided to Site 4 E38 tenants, in one of the first campus tests of MIT-provided food waste collection outside of a dining location. Centralized bins can limit contamination and support healthy habits, while also offering better pest management with fewer waste locations in the building. 

If people find that the centralized waste bins are not located in convenient places, the bins are light and flexible in the event they do need to be re-positioned within the space.   If a move of bins is needed, we strongly recommend that DLC-operational leadership is consulted so that the move works well for everyone in the space. 

Desk-side bins are for self-servicing.  Some folks may have brought their own desk side bins.  One can certainly keep desk side bins to hold waste materials temporarily until you are ready to bring your waste to a convenient waste collection stations for sorting. Please do not keep any food or food-soiled waste in a desk-side bin overnight in order to avoid pests and odor. You may also remove your desk side bin altogether if you wish. 
 

If you have temporary or permanent mobility issues and need accommodation, please email us at binrequest@mit.edu

What role do Buildings E37 and E38 play in testing approaches to design out waste for MIT?

Design out waste at MIT means designing and testing strategies that reduce the generation of trash and increase the amount of clean material (i.e. paper goods, plastics, and food waste) that can be recycled and re-processed. 

MIT seeks to reimagine its waste management systems and behaviors in order to safely eliminate waste generation and drive a circular flow of materials from inputs through outputs, procurement through disposal. Transforming systems and individual behaviors can be challenging, especially where long established systems and norms exist. As such, the “blank canvas” of Buildings E37 and E38 allows for an opportunity to test pilots, refine best practices, and innovate new solutions. 

The test cases you see around the buildings are supported by data collected from previous pilots and studies around campus. For example,  campus waste data collected and analyzed from numerous locations reveals significant levels of contamination of recycling, trash, and food waste streams. E37 and E38 provide the opportunity to evaluate practices, collect data, feedback insights to the community and demonstrate possibilities to mitigate this contamination which can then be scaled up for designing out waste throughout the MIT campus.