Embracing a Culture of Sustainable Innovation

Alex Slaymaker is the grand prize winner of the NACAS Student Author Contest, sponsored by Starbucks Coffee Company. Students were asked to submit articles on the topic of “How is your campus auxiliary services making an impact in the area of sustainability? What additional changes could be made; how would those changes impact the student base on campus and you personally?” Starbucks Coffee Company generously donated a $1,000 cash prize for first place and additional prizes of $600 and $400 for second and third place.


As a Sustainability Solutions Masters student, I’m proud to report Arizona State University’s (ASU) auxiliary services followed the University’s lead of prioritizing sustainability. Each unique service approaches the complex opportunities and challenges of sustainability efforts differently, while all embracing creative cooperation. Champions within many different services work together, and with students, to envision, implement, measure, and evolve sustainability initiatives.

The culture of innovation around social, ecological, and economic components of sustainability at ASU is contagious. Auxiliary partners bring their own insight as well as institutional knowledge, collected from branches across the world. In fact, sustainability practices at ASU are so rampant, it would be unjust to focus this article on just one auxiliary service. Instead, I will outline key contributions from a range of services.

Sustainability Accomplishments:

  • ASU’s Zero Waste Department partners with Aramark to compost all back-of-the-house organics through a local waste hauler and processor well known for their sustainability practices, Sonoran Waste Disposal. 308.42 tons of pre and post-consumer organic food waste was diverted from the landfill in FY15. Aramark also partners with ASU’s Zero Waste Department to collect coffee grounds from dining halls, cafes, and Starbucks; with 7.2 tons of coffee grounds collected in FY15. The Department then works with Grounds to administer coffee grounds to flower beds, hence the catchy name- Grounds for Grounds. By not landfilling this resource, ASU saves over $11,000 a year- now that’s a win-win!
  • Aramark offers coffee, tea and Coca-Cola products for 99 cents if customers bring their own reusable cup and provide free reusable bags to customers purchasing at least $15 worth of goods in an effort to encourage responsible resource use. Additionally, they provide a 10% discount off purchases of $10 or more when customers bring their own bag and have worked with Subway to switch from single use plastic bags to recyclable paper bags. Aramark offers BPA-free, recycled content reusable to-go containers at the downtown campus food service. To take zero waste to the next level, Aramark even works with a local group, Waste Not, to donate surplus food to community members in need. In FY15 3.56 tons of food were donated to the group. Aramark offers an entire menu of local, organic, vegan, and sustainably sourced food items at reasonable costs. Their chefs use dates and oranges grown on campus and picked by fraternity and sorority volunteers for unique dishes in the dining halls. Aramark offers event planners the option to make their conference, workshop, or gathering zero waste. They provide a checklist for anyone planning events and offer the following services:
    • compost and recycling bins
    • trained bin guards
    • compostable and recyclable food packaging
    • easy to understand signage
    • and brief announcements on zero waste during the food portion of an event
  • The Memorial Union takes a holistic approach to sustainability by following Green Office guidelines, offering four water bottle refilling stations, and recently installing waterless urinals to conserve water- an especially precious resource in the desert. In a recent renovation, the Memorial Union also reduced energy costs by 70%, used 20% of materials from recycled content, and source 30% local materials. In Spring 2016, the Memorial Union collaborated with the Zero Waste Department to create a Zero Waste Station in the major dining area complete with signage which includes composting, recycling, and landfill options.
  • Mail Services recycles pens, rubber bands, folders, and other hard to recycled items while the Poly Print Shop at the Polytechnic campus switched from foam wrap to paper wrap for yard signs to reduce waste which cannot be diverted from the landfill.
  • Residential Life works with ASU’s University Sustainability Practices to provide student programming around sustainability topics including: water, waste, energy, and health. One program encourages students to take showers for less than five minutes to conserve water- an important message in the desert. Residential Life also supports community garden efforts and partners with the Zero Waste Department to divert waste during move-out.

It’s especially significant to note ASU is the largest university in the nation, which creates a unique set of barriers for auxiliary service change makers.  However, simple sustainability changes made at an institution of this size have large, positive ripple efforts through many supply chains across the globe. With increased complexity and challenges, also comes greater potential for sustainability transformations.

Most importantly, ASU departments and auxiliary services serve as sustainability role models to over 70,000 students on Tempe campus each year. Since ASU is expected to keep growing in student population and reach, the positive influence of the institution and its partners will expand as well. For most students, they learn about the benefits and ease of composting and other sustainability efforts. A smaller group of advocate students get an inside look at how sustainability works. These students get to work with auxiliary services and ASU to navigate the complexity of sustainability change, gaining invaluable skills for the work force.

Myself and members of a club I am President of, the Zero Waste Club, had the opportunity to tour the composting facility with Aramark employees and ASU Zero Waste Department staff last semester. This eye-opening experience helped us students understand the ‘behind the scenes’ systems required to make a campus more sustainable. We also were enlightened to the many challenges faced by auxiliary services at achieving sustainable outcomes.

Although I’m excited to be at a University leading sustainability efforts, I also recognize ASU and its partners have a long journey ahead. Changing student culture is something auxiliary service cannot and is not tasked to do. This fundamental change must come from within- from the students themselves. For example, this year myself and another student leader met with sustainability champions from Aramark and the Memorial Union to discuss replacing disposable silverware with a reusable substitute. Although they loved the idea, they found an extremely high theft rate of areas where they already have reusable options. Understandably, they didn’t want to convert the entire Union to this model based on uncredulous student behavior. In this case, the problem is not auxiliary services, it’s a student culture of entitlement. Waste reduction efforts and sustainability programming help influence students, but these initiatives won’t be enough to transform our world.  We, the students, must also take responsibility for the future sustainability of our campus and world. To coopt an old cliché- auxiliary services can lead students to compost, but can’t make them divert (or avert).

Despite these barriers, I’m confident my future visits as an alumni to ASU will be greeted by even greater transformative sustainability shifts in service from ASU’s innovative partners. Working together, the ASU community and auxiliary services are, and will continue to, have a huge positive impact.


Alex Slaymaker
Alex pursued a Masters degree in Sustainable Solutions at Arizona State University because of her lifelong passion for helping others and being a good steward to the planet humanity depends on. As a proud Clevelander, she aspires to help increase the resiliency, equity, and sustainability of Rust Belt cities after graduating this summer. Alex is the grand prize winner of the 2016 Student Author Contest.

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