March 14, 2023

UCalgary students divert 2,000-plus pounds of lab Styrofoam from landfill

New recycling program sees big uptake in first year of pilot at Foothills campus
Micky Ahn, left, and Daniel Castaneda Mogollon
Micky Ahn, left, and Daniel Castaneda Mogollon Courtesy Micky Ahn and Daniel Castaneda Mogollon

As a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Micky (Sangwook) Ahn, BSc’17, is familiar with the polystyrene waste that is produced by lab work at the University of Calgary.

He recognized how crucial the material (often referred to by the brand name Styrofoam) is when it comes to protecting lab samples, but also knew that leftover polystyrene was going to the landfill each time. Ahn’s studies have an ecological focus in animal health sciences, so he decided to do something. 

“Right now, I’m working with DNA samples, and Styrofoam is used constantly to get new shipments of reagents. These very tiny bottles need to be sent in a secured fashion,” says Ahn. “You can really see how quickly the Styrofoam can pile up because you’re the one that is generating it and you can't reuse things in the lab for many reasons.”

Making matters worse, polystyrene (including Styrofoam) is one material The City of Calgary doesn’t accept for recycling, so it wasn’t as easy as placing blue bins near the labs.

Recycling bins located at Foothills campus loading dock

Recycling bins located at Foothills campus loading dock

Courtesy Micky Ahn and Daniel Castaneda Mogollon

Ahn developed a plan to take action to create a positive lasting impact on campus, alongside fellow PhD candidate Daniel Castaneda Mogollon from the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine. Shortly after launching the polystyrene recycling program for labs, the pair, who are both members of the Graduate Students’ Association Sustainability Committee, faced some challenges.

“Another committee member initially mentioned an idea of electronic recycling so, when we shifted towards Styrofoam, it was hard to get the parts moving because there wasn’t any interest,” says Castaneda Mogollon.

Determined to figure out a way to reduce waste on campus, both students found support through the Campus as a Learning Lab (CLL) initiative offered by the Office of Sustainability. CLL connects and supports students, faculty and operational staff on projects advancing sustainability on campus. Ahn and Castaneda Mogollon’s project is providing the university’s operational staff added capacity to integrate sustainability throughout the institution. This provides students real-world opportunities to apply their knowledge, develop their network and create a positive impact on campus.

“We’ve wanted to tackle this issue for a while, but staff capacity during the pandemic and space restrictions have added challenges,” says Ron Bailey, manager of distribution services, who is an operational stakeholder for this project from Supply Chain Management.

Since the start of this project in March 2022, more than 2,000 pounds of Styrofoam have been recycled, a triumph in the eyes of Castaneda Mogollon and Ahn. The material can now be left for recycling at the loading dock of the Foothills campus, where it is collected and recycled by Styro-Go, a local company.

Recycling bin located at Science Theatres

Recycling bin located at Science Theatres

Courtesy Micky Ahn and Daniel Castaneda Mogollon

The pilot at Foothills has been a huge success and I was excited at the prospect of bringing this program to main campus,” says Nathan Tremblay, MFA’12, workshop supervisor in the dean’s office at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, another operational stakeholder for the project.

CLL pitched the challenge of determining the feasibility of expanding this pilot onto the main campus to MBA students in Management Studies 615 in fall 2022. Students Cameron Armstrong; Devin Limpert, BComm’17, MBA’23; and Michael Nodder, MBA’23, surveyed labs across main campus to identify ideal bin locations, conducted a financial feasibility comparison, and developed an environmental impact plan to propose a pathway for program expansion.

The original project, meanwhile, has contributed to UCalgary moving toward its targets for waste diversion, adds Ana Pazmino, BA’11, MSc’13, manager of caretaking programs within Facilities Management, yet another operational stakeholder.

“It has been wonderful to partner with these students through CLL,” says Pazmino.  

Ahn says he’s noticed a change of behaviour in students and staff now that the program is up and running.

“New habits of recycling have been formed and many students have learned about the importance of recycling,” says Ahn. “If you have an idea, just go for it — lose the fear of it not working out.”

These recycling bins can be found in the following locations:

  • Foothills campus loading dock
  • Main campus, Science Theatres loading dock
  • Main campus, outside PF1130 main doors

Learn more about the styrofoam waste initiative.

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices, and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.

Campus as a Learning Lab (CLL) is creating pathways for the UCalgary community to work together. Students, faculty, staff, researchers and community partners are coming together to discover pathways for a more sustainable future. Start something new with us. Have an idea? Submit a CLL proposal.

Megan Curley was a student intern in Sustainability at UCalgary at the time this story was written.

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