Resource Recovery Interns use Campus as a Living Lab

Resource Recovery interns at UT Austin


When students use campus as a living lab, their research informs UT Austin’s best practices and keeps campus innovative. This is especially true in part of UT’s operations, Resource Recovery. Over the last four years, staff created research opportunities for interns and used the results to shape their work.

The Resource Recovery Student Internship Program brings over 20 students representing almost every college together to tackle campus sustainability goals.  Interns work in six different project teams each semester to catalyze the change needed for campus to reach the university’s 2020 zero waste goal, or to keep 90% of the campus waste out of the landfill. Interns report on their impacts at the end of each semester, including their most recent December presentation to Facilities Services and Office of Sustainability staff.

Student interns lead efforts in each of these areas:

  • Surplus Property brings great return value to the university through auction sales. Interns keep the online auction and UT REUSE Surplus Store operational.  A wide array of items like furniture, electronics, and clothing are kept out of the landfill through increased auction frequency, efficiency, and accessibility. The REUSE Store has hosted weekly sales since March 2018, and after a brief hiatus for the winter break will be back in action on Thursday, February 7.
  • By placing recycle and landfill trash bins side-by-side and updating labeling, interns reduce confusion and make recycling more convenient. Last semester, the team documented over 85 different types of bins, and these are only a percentage of the total on campus. Reducing the variety of bins will encourage recycling and clearly promote single-stream collection in which all recycle bins collect paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum and hard plastics together.
  • Interns focus on educating their peers and raising awareness through in-person conversation and social media posts. This semester, interns are ready to provide zero waste tips and answer your questions at tabling alongside UT Farm Stand events.
  • A team of interns collects data to determine the percentage of recyclable and compostable materials ending up in the landfill trash from campus classroom and office buildings. The team analyzes a different campus building each week, paying attention to 20 distinct material types. Team members also have a special focus on food service packaging because it makes up more than a third of the waste on campus that can’t be recycled or composted. Compost is a large category of material – just under half our current trash is compostable and about a fourth of that compost is paper towels. This data collection helps Resource Recovery develop programs such as paper towel composting in restrooms across campus.
  • Another intern effort is to offer personalized resources to each campus building through the Zero Waste Workplace program. Although it will take time for the program to reach each building, Resource Recovery interns want to connect with building Zero Waste Workplace Champions to better assist each office.

By being embedded in Facilities Services, interns are making a direct and lasting impact on UT Austin while developing their own marketable skillsets. As the zero waste landscape matures, project roles are tweaked to continue providing Resource Recovery with valuable insight through the development, testing, and implementation of new ideas.

Author: Lindsey Hutchison, Zero Waste Program Coordinator