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Graduate student spearheads OSU-Tulsa’s move to zero-landfill status

OSU-Tulsa graduate student Lauren Branum outside Tulsa's Covanta facility.

Graduate student Lauren Branum has been “talking trash” for months, but it’s a good thing because the result will be a cleaner and greener Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus.

As part of her work toward a Professional Science Master’s degree in environmental science, Branum has transformed OSU-Tulsa into what she believes is Oklahoma’s first zero-landfill public university.

As of Oct. 1, all waste produced at OSU-Tulsa is either recycled or incinerated to generate energy. Whether Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, plastic bottles or banana peels, none of the university’s waste will be dumped directly into a landfill.

“The closest university I know of that has accomplished zero-landfill status is John Brown University in Arkansas,” Branum said. “So this is a pretty big deal.”

Nationwide, universities and colleges are joining what is called the zero-waste movement to minimize landfill use, increase recycling and reduce waste.

Although not conclusive, some research studies suggest that landfills leak toxins into the air, soil and water and are harmful to human health and the environment.

“College students are growing more interested in attending universities that are ‘sustainable’ and ‘green,’ ” Branum said. “I think this zero-landfill initiative will help attract students to OSU-Tulsa and to the Professional Science Master’s program.”

Master’s program opens doors

OSU-Tulsa’s PSM program is the first and only one of its kind in Oklahoma, providing students a direct springboard to industry-specific job opportunities.

Unlike traditional programs, the PSM degree specifically focuses on preparing graduates to help industry comply with regulations, reduce waste, produce cost savings and improve sustainability.

“The degree program focuses more on industrial sustainability,” said Dr. Ken Ede, director of the PSM program. “This initiative is a prime example of that.”

Through the zero-landfill initiative, Branum was able to gain real-world experience for her future career as an environmental professional for a company or organization.

“It’s exciting to see the work Lauren has done to build on OSU-Tulsa’s efforts to be environmentally friendly,” said Ron Bussert, OSU-Tulsa vice president for administration and finance. “Because this doesn’t cost the university anything extra, I call these types of endeavors ‘green and green’ – environmentally green and fiscally green.”

Branum said the timing was right for the project.

Not only was the university’s previous waste hauling contract up for renewal when she started, but the OSU-Tulsa campus is located just minutes away from Covanta, an Energy-from-Waste plant that incinerates waste with non-emissions technology and turns it into electricity.

The nontoxic ash that remains after incineration is used as landfill cover, instead of soil, to reduce leakage of liquid toxins.

Covanta generates 16.8 megawatts of clean, renewable energy from tons of waste each day. The company sells the energy to Holly Frontier, Inc. and Public Service Company of Oklahoma.

Together with OSU-Tulsa administration and budget and finance staff, Branum worked to ensure waste disposal contract proposals included an energy-from-waste option. When the bids came back, every waste hauler was willing to take the campus waste to Covanta for no extra charge.

Recycling program improvements

While OSU-Tulsa has long had a recycling program, Branum wondered why so few materials were being collected in campus recycling bins. She discovered that unnecessary restrictions – like ‘plastics only’ or ‘no cardboard’ – kept people from searching out the proper bin.

“All the recyclables go in the same bin out back so there is no need to separate them,” Branum said.

OSU-Tulsa sends its mixed recyclables to Mr. Murph, a recycling company that sorts paper, glass, metals, plastic, aluminum and cardboard once they arrive at its facility.

“Recycling programs have changed over the years and the labels on the bins have not changed with them,” Branum said. “My project also includes new bin labels to ensure everyone on campus knows they can put any recyclable in them.”

She also gave out reusable water bottles and bags to further cut down on waste.

“This has been a great learning experience for me and a positive for OSU-Tulsa,” Branum said. “My hope is that our zero-landfill initiative becomes a model for other universities in the state.”

To learn more about the Professional Science Master’s degree, visit the Environmental Science Graduate Program website. To learn more about Energy-from-Waste and recycling services, visit the Covanta or Mr. Murph websites.

NOTE: This story was updated on Nov. 15, 2018 to reflect the most accurate terminology regarding sustainability.
Graduate student Lauren Branum fills a reusable water bottle to help reduce waste at the OSU-Tulsa campus.
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