Sorting It Out: Sustainability in Higher Education

Young adults searching through clear and opaque garbage bags

Students at Carnegie Mellon University doing a compost pilot trash audit. Photo credit: Kathy Zhang

by Kathy Zhang

In May of 2021, I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a combined degree in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Art. I joined sustainability efforts on campus as a second-year student, at first emphasizing trash, compost, and recycling. I felt especially passionate about my recycling initiatives at the housing office. Working with three other students, I created educational posters and presentations for residents, tabled in dorms, and even dug through trash for waste audits. Our work was education-based as we taught our fellow students how to recycle.

Looking back, however, I understand these efforts were superficial. We addressed symptoms, rather than the whole cycle of consumption and waste, and despite our energy and commitment, it was impossible to make more systemic change. As students, we did not have authority, funding, or knowledge to change the institution. I spent a lot of time and energy creating small changes that now seem unremarkable. During my final year of college, I reflected on what I used to think, what I learned, and what I hope will be next for the campus where I spent four years.

In my initial attempts to foster a more sustainable campus, I promoted lifestyle changes to reduce waste. I urged students to compost and recycle and launched education campaigns in campus housing to demonstrate the right way to sort trash. I took on new roles: I was promoted to Housing Sustainability Lead, and I joined the student environmental club, Sustainable Earth.

I focused on individual waste reduction at first because it seemed obvious to me. Stories of individualized waste predominate in our culture, including in universities. Carnegie Mellon claims to be

Leading the way. Setting the Standard. Carnegie Mellon is committed to environmental research and education and we are equally committed to adopting sustainable practices that will reduce the operational footprint of our campuses.1

My experience as a student sharply diverged from this vague and aspirational statement. In the university I attended, campus sustainability efforts are shouldered by students, who do not have time or resources to make lasting institutional change. Our environmental club works on a wide range of topics, and we love engaging with our peers, but the club effectively serves as the university’s central contact point, information clearinghouse, and hub for anyone on campus with a question about sustainability—all tasks that should be the responsibility of a missing Office of Sustainability.

Meanwhile, the university has been advertising the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to students without initiating any tangible efforts to achieve those goals. Carnegie Mellon’s sustainability homepage lists broad “charges” and “commitments,” which, along with the SDGs on that page, act as an illusion of dedication.2

In reality, the university does not reflect on or change its practices in a manner which is effective. For example, it maintains a decentralized and privatized dining system, where, instead of a typical university cafeteria, food options are scattered into individual eateries around campus, systematically creating waste. Using a “block” system, which consists of meal plans with a set amount of food per meal and a set number of meals to be used over the course of the semester, students automatically pay for an entrée, side, and beverage with each meal. Students become incentivized to take more items than they eat through this meal plan, a practice further encouraged by dining staff. It is common for many students, including me, to take plastic water bottles or bagged chips to fulfill the “block” requirements, even though I would not have bought these products otherwise. This dining system and the on-campus convenience store, called Entropy+, offer single-use items and expect consumers to correctly sort the resulting discards.

Young adults smiling while holding clear and opaque garbage bags

Students at Carnegie Mellon University working on a compost pilot trash audit. Photo credit: Kathy Zhang

The university has privatized and decentralized its dining system while trumpeting achievements in sustainability; this is counterproductive and confused. A truly sustainable fix would require insight and centralized authority. This could take the form of an Office of Sustainability made up of full-time, paid positions specifically focused on sustainability at Carnegie Mellon. Though such an office would consist of paid staff, there could be heavy emphasis on student participation and influence. The office could also tackle all three pillars of sustainability – environmental, yes, but also economic and social sustainability by employing a community-oriented practice. Inviting Pittsburgh community leaders who are already working on environmental justice and being advised by those leaders would be vital. Those employed in the office should also have a sufficient grounding in sustainability, where no relevant discipline is overlooked.

My perspective shifted because of a research project. The summer after junior year, I received a grant to kickstart my senior capstone project. My research questioned the individualization of responsibility for waste management, particularly at the university level. I asked, “How did we get to this point of maximum trash, and what could be done to improve the cultural relationship of producer, consumer, and the endless stream of trash?” Supervised by a history professor, I reached the following conclusion: “In order to establish a more sustainable waste management system, producers must recognize and act upon their responsibility in minimizing the amount of waste their products create rather than promoting the individualization of responsibility [by consumers].”

Research led me to self-recognition about my recycling education initiative for the campus housing office. A popular understanding of waste management is that because waste we see generated is by the individual as a consumer, consumers should be held accountable for correctly sorting and throwing away their trash. The prevalence of this view came about mostly through its promotion by industry. It can be found throughout much of mainstream Western environmentalism, which “sees both the problem and solution to environmental issues as being in the hands of individual consumers, rather than the producer or society as a whole”3 —or as Michael Maniates calls it, the “individualization of responsibility.”4

These beliefs are not only debatable, but also harmful toward our efforts to deal with waste. It shifted the conversation of waste management from industry’s trash production to consumers’ individual actions, like littering and incorrectly sorting trash. Further exploring ideas like this from Discard Studies, I considered the social, cultural, and political systems involved in consumption and waste and began to see the issue in a different light.

My capstone research project argues that the best way to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability would be to establish a university-wide Office of Sustainability. Support for an Office of Sustainability at Carnegie Mellon has been widespread and consistent. There have been several attempts to influence the creation of such an office with no success. Some of these include an endorsement of the idea from Carnegie Mellon’s Graduate Student Assembly and Undergraduate Student Senate, a Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee’s 15-page report supporting the creation of an office called “The Future of Sustainability Education, Research and Practice at CMU,” and a petition to create an office with 302 signatures from students and alumni. Sustainable Earth further supported the Graduate Student Assembly and the Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Sustainability in their insistence that the university administration create a dedicated Office of Sustainability.

Right now, the university plays into the broader cultural emphasis on individualization of responsibility by fostering a campus that makes it incredibly difficult for students to live sustainably. By contrast, Carnegie Mellon’s neighbor, Chatham University, which does have an Office of Sustainability, has structured their Eden Hall Campus around sustainability—using food grown by their students in dining halls and cafes,5 supporting student and faculty research on sustainability, using solar panels to power their entire campus, and much more.

While I had all these realizations in the space of four years, Carnegie Mellon did not. The university is stuck on the same approach I used in the residence halls: focusing on symptoms, rather than addressing the system. The university consistently uses language online and on posters suggesting waste creation and disposal are responsibilities of the individual. Carnegie Mellon’s “Recycling and Waste Management” web page demonstrates how to dispose of waste at the university, supported by misleading reasons why recycling is important: “to reduce global warming, to prevent air pollution, to solve the problem of scarcity of landfills, to prevent water pollution, to save energy.”6 In reality, “recycling to save the world is akin to changing a lightbulb to change the world… the action and problem just don’t match up.”7

Carnegie Mellon lists sustainability as one of its eight core values: “to lead by example in preserving and protecting our natural resources, and in our approach to responsible financial planning,”8 yet university leadership refuses to create an Office of Sustainability. Instead, they continue emphasizing the United Nations’ SDGs without any clear-cut, concrete ideas of how the university will meet those goals.

The university’s inability to tackle its sustainability issues in a manner which matches the scale of the challenge points toward a lack of knowledge on the topic. The attractive rhetoric without concrete action also suggests a lack of care about these issues and their impact on others. Without a more centralized campus platform, especially one made up of individuals with adequate knowledge and care, tackling problems of consumption and waste is impossible—I was not going to accomplish systemic change on my own, no matter how many trash audits I conducted or informational posters I created. Student leaders like me are constantly cycling through the university; we only have four years to understand, plan, and implement our ideas. When recent graduates try to keep their projects alive, passing them down to new students, these projects often lose momentum and fade away, as I have witnessed. To implement meaningful, long-lasting change, there must be real institutional commitment and permanent structural adjustments. This will require an Office of Sustainability that has real power to guide system-wide change.

I have sorted it out for myself. Now it is the university’s turn.

Kathy Zhang is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied Art and Environmental and Sustainability Studies. Throughout her college career, she participated in many student positions focused on improving environmental sustainability on campus.










  1. University Commitments; Environment at CMU, Carnegie Mellon University.
  2. Sustainability Initiative; Leadership, Carnegie Mellon University.
  3. Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini, eds., 2012. Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice. Cambridge: MIT Press, 200.
  4. Michael Maniates. 2001. Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World? Global Environmental Politics 1(3):33.
  5. Food at Eden Hall Campus; Eden Hall Campus, Chatham University.
  6. Recycling and Waste Management, Environment at CMU, Carnegie Mellon University.
  7. Max Liboiron. 2014. Solutions to waste and the problem of scalar mismatches, Discard Studies, February 10.
  8. Vision, Mission and Values; About, Carnegie Mellon University.