Reducing, reusing are keys to limiting COVID-19 waste surge

Thanks in large part to paper towels and sanitizer wipes -- common supplies for employees charged with cleaning their own work areas -- mitigating the risk of the coronavirus is bound to increase the amount of campus garbage.

Zero-waste opportunities

Interested in a virtual departmental presentation on Iowa State's zero-waste initiative or connecting students with opportunities to contribute to the effort? Contact Ayodeji Oluwalana at

That's why it's more important than ever to be thoughtful about generating as little trash as possible, said Ayodeji Oluwalana, recycling and special events coordinator for facilities planning and management (FPM). From the refrain of "reduce, reuse and recycle," reusing and reducing have taken on even bigger roles than usual, since disposable single-use items expected to drive surges in waste aren't recyclable.

"People should carefully consider what waste they're generating in the first place," said Oluwalana, who launched a zero-waste effort in 2018 aimed at diverting 85% of ISU refuse from landfills by 2025. "While we're managing a health crisis, we don't want to create other problems down the road."

That starts with only buying what's needed, he said. Even purchases of durable goods tend to create immediate waste -- think of the packaging tossed out when an office replaces its computers, for instance. Plus, raising the bar for buying brings savings to help manage shrinking budgets.

"It's a good time to ask if you really need what you're trying to acquire now," he said.

Departments that do need to make large purchases can include waste reduction provisions in contracts, requiring vendors to limit or manage waste, Oluwalana said.

At an individual level, reusable items remain safe when washed regularly and not shared with others, despite the increased reliance on disposable products during the pandemic, Oluwalana said. Like wearing a cloth face covering instead of a throwaway surgical mask, using washable plates and silverware for lunch at the office or a personal towel for drying your hands in the bathroom is safe and an effective way to slash trash production.

For daily sanitizing at a workstation, consider bringing a clean rag from home every day instead of burning through paper towels and sanitizer wipes. If a disposable method seems necessary, Oluwalana suggested opting for paper towels and cleaning spray over sanitizer wipes because most wipes are not biodegradable and are permanent scourges in landfills.    

Because of the added work of sanitizing classrooms, restrooms and other common areas during the COVID-19 crisis, FPM custodial teams aren't cleaning offices and conference rooms this school year. In addition to cleaning their own work spaces, employees must take their own recycling and trash to central bins. That requirement may make it easier to expand a pilot project Oluwalana began last year in FPM's General Services Building to remove garbage cans from desks, which boosted recycling rates by making it more convenient than throwing something in the trash.

Oluwalana had planned to extend the recycling-only initiative to a handful of academic buildings last spring, but it was derailed by the reduced operations caused by COVID-19. He will be recruiting building managers this fall to restart the project.

"It's all about trying to change behavior," he said.