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Waste Not

Glenn Matsumura

By Kathy Zonana

One of Stanford Recycling Center's interns had a winning idea, and her boss knew it: collect used athletic shoes and ship them to Nike, for recycling into sports flooring and playground surfaces.

By 2006, five years after Julie Muir greenlighted the proposal from Christine Chiu, '05, the recycling center had collected 1,334 pairs of shoes. After a four-day sorting party, those without holes—some 584 pairs—were sent to Afghanistan for reuse. The remaining shoes became Nike Grind.

Shoe recycling is one of several innovative programs at the recycling center, which is operated by a family-owned hauler, Peninsula Sanitary Service. The center diverts 61 percent of Stanford's waste from landfills, whereas the national average is 32.5 percent. Muir, its community services manager, attributes this to two factors: robust local markets that can accept, for example, construction debris; and solid support from Stanford administrators and students, “even before sustainability became the new thing to be involved in.”

One of the recycling center's current priorities: composting organic materials, which reduces the amount of methane in the atmosphere and creates a soil product that can decrease farmers' use of pesticides, herbicides and water. Stanford began transporting waste from the Wilbur Hall kitchen to a high-heat compost facility in 2003. The pilot program “went so well, and was so easy,” Muir says, that it expanded to all dining halls the following year, and now includes student-managed residences and campus cafés.

Through recycling, reuse and waste prevention, “we do think there's a possibility of a zero-waste world,” Muir says. “If we've got your organic material, your electronics, your batteries and your plastic bags, what's left in the waste stream?” Disposable diapers—“because not everyone's going to switch to cloth”—and nonrecyclable plastics. But “zero waste” is defined as 90 percent diversion from landfill, and the world doesn't need a whiz-bang super-duper plastic smelter to make progress toward it. “When I get all the bottles, cans, cardboard and paper out of the garbage, then I'll worry about those plastics.”

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