You are here


Stanford has one of the longest running university waste diversion programs in the country, with roots going back to the 70s when students first established a recycling program for the campus. The total amount of material that Stanford sends to the landfill has significantly declined due to robust efforts to minimize campus waste, including waste reduction and reuse programs and increasing recycling and composting.

These efforts are critical as the university works toward becoming a zero-waste campus, defined as a 90% diversion rate or higher, by 2030. Stanford's diversion rate in 2020 was 67%, which is a 37% increase from 1994. Learn more about ongoing initiatives

Zero Waste

Stanford initiated a Zero Waste Feasibility Study in 2017, which included in-depth analysis and planning to provide more detailed understanding of its waste streams, develop strategies to further reduce overall waste generation, increase diversion (material sent to recycling or composting instead of landfill), and work toward the ultimate goal of zero waste – defined as 10% or less going to landfill. The study was conducted using internal resources and peer reviewed by industry experts.   

The Zero Waste Plan prioritizes reduction, spearheaded by initiatives in purchasing and contracts, followed by reuse, recycling, and compost, as indicated by the waste hierarchy. Education and community outreach will help to facilitate progress through every step of the way, to embed responsible resource management and waste minimization behaviors into the campus culture. To inform planning, the university conducted a waste characterization study, building on more than 30 campus audits, to get a detailed picture of the 34% of materials that end up in the landfill stream. This study not only confirmed that more than 75% of what ends up in the landfill could actually be diverted, but it also provided an in-depth look at the types of materials that comprise each stream. Learn more, and read the study. 

Solutions Pathway

The cross-cutting benefits of a comprehensive waste management program include conserving energy, reducing landfilled materials, conserving natural resources by providing recyclable materials to manufacturers, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution from the supply chain. The solutions in the Zero Waste Plan focus on stronger green purchasing policies and increased reuse and composting across Stanford's schools, departments, and buildings, along with enhancing the existing recycling program. Through the year 2023, priorities will focus around piloting zero waste programs across campus to ensure that the holistic program meets the needs of the micro-cultures across Stanford, depending on building type, academic programs, and community needs. The chart below shows the key grouped programs that will steadily improve our diversion rates and reduce landfill rate overtime by 2030. This pathway is subject to change as pilots reveal additional efficiencies.


Impacts of Chinese Waste Ban

The Chinese Waste Ban has had an impact on the Stanford Recycling Program, but the university is still able to recycle most items. The metals (scrap, aluminum, and tin cans), glass, compost, and construction debris have not been impacted by the Chinese Waste Ban. Additionally, paper and corrugated cardboard can still be recycled, however the business model has shifted. Stanford must now pay to recycle paper, and receives minimal revenue for its cardboard. That said, paper consumption has significantly declined in recent years, while cardboard consumption has increased.

The plastic stream is the most impacted from the Chinese Waste Ban. #1 PETE bottles and #2 HDPE clear and colored plastics can still be recycled, but #1 plastic thermoforms (clamshell to-go containers, berry containers, etc) and plastics 3-7 cannot, although we still accept them in the bins. The domestic plastics markets have been slow to respond, but there are signs of improvement, such as new plastic recyclers opening in the US.

Fluctuations in the market will likely continue as countries adjust to the ban, which is why we encourage reduction as a first step in waste management. Shifting to reusable goods and reducing the amount of waste you generate in the first place is critical to achieving our zero waste goals.


View the latest Sustainability Year in Review for more in-depth data on Stanford's diversion rate over time.

  • The Deskside Paper Recycling and Mini–Trash Can Program expanded to 108 buildings, with 9,000 total bin sets and Zero Waste Guidelines delivered. 
  • Departments have funded 135 compost collection points through the Customer-Funded Compostables Collection Program, launched in July 2015. The Voluntary Compost Program increased participation to over 400 volunteers collecting food and other compostable materials from common spaces to bring to collection bins.
  • Over 150 people were trained on best waste sorting, recycling, and composting practices through waste reduction classes.
  • Stanford Surplus Sales’ furniture reutilization program helps departments avoid landfill fees and contributes to university sustainability goals by collecting and selling unwanted furniture and equipment at discounted prices. The program successfully diverted approximately 81 tons of furniture from landfill in 2019-20.
  • Three Sustainability Game Day Challenges were hosted in partnership with the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation. Game Days resulted in an 8-24% increase in waste diversion rates from the prior year, thanks to increased composting infrastructure, food donation programs, student participation, and fan outreach and engagement. These efforts also resulted in a nearly 9% overall increase in waste diversion at the stadium, including an almost 12% increase in the tailgating areas.