By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
Students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond can pick up free classroom materials and furnishings for their dorm rooms when they arrive on campus at the start of the semester.
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This generosity is part of the university’s sustainability program.
“The Office of Sustainability is opening a new Free Store, to serve as an inclusive, on-campus resource to address basic necessities of living for members of the VCU community,” according to a VCU announcement.
The free items include small refrigerators, clothing irons, coffee pots, textbooks, trash cans, lamps, bicycles and nearly all the items needed to furnish a small apartment.
VCU Free Store Is an Example of Reverse Logistics
Rather than grind up everything or throw it in trash cans, this free store is an example of reverse logistics. It takes unwanted items and cleans them, repairs them if necessary, and gives them away to any students who walk into the store.
The program puts a positive spin on the more traditional business process of taking unwanted items to a trash dump or sending them to a processing plant to be turned into basic raw materials — such as glass, plastic, wood, paper or metal — and used for remanufacturing goods.
Institutions of Higher Learning Are Participating in a Nationwide Competition
Today, over 600 colleges and universities are taking recycling seriously and reducing trash on campus. These academic institutions have turned reverse logistics into a business and a contest, which is significantly different than VCU’s application of reverse logistics.
In fact, many of these institutions participate in a nationwide annual competition called RecycleMania, which encourages students, faculty and administrators to clean up their environment. This year, some 300 campuses in 43 states competed in RecycleMania in 2019. The entrants included 4.25 million students and 900,000 faculty and staff for a total of more than 5.1 million participants. VCU did not participate.
The competition measures such factors as how much of a campus’s waste stream is recycled, how much is diverted, per capita results and food waste abatement. The contest also examines the effect of educating young people to avoid single-use plastics such as disposable bottles and packaging.
Participants included colleges and universities from across the country, including:
- University of Virginia-Charlottesville
- College of William and Mary
- Ohio State University
- Loyola Marymount University
- Rutgers University
- North Carolina State University
- Union College
- Knox College
On August 29, Recycle Mania will host an informational webinar for its International Coastal Cleanup on September 21.
Universities Are Embracing Recycling as a Campus Activity
Many of these colleges and universities promote the recycling part of reverse logistics. The 2012 RecycleMania Grand Champion, American University, has set a goal to become 100% waste free, according to the Best College’s Recycling Survey.
For example, furniture is recycled or reused at AU. The Washington, D.C., university also composts “all paper towels from restrooms on campus and all kitchen waste from three dining areas. Bottled water and food trays have also gotten the ax, cutting waste by 32%,” the Best Colleges Survey reported.
Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, took home the RecycleMania gold for waste minimization each year from 2012 to 2014, a category designed to encourage schools to reduce their waste output of both trash and recyclables. Valencia encourages the use of both sides of the paper for essays and other written work.
Other colleges making a sustained effort to reduce waste include:
- The College of the Atlantic
- Kalamazoo College
- Chatham University
- Harvard University
- Purdue University
- Brown University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- University of Connecticut
Not All Items Thrown Away Are Recyclable
However, while the list of items that colleges and universities recycle is extensive, there are numerous items that cannot be recycled, including:
- Shredded paper
- Brightly colored paper
- Pizza boxes
- Household glass
- Bottle caps
- Wet paper
- Milk and juice cartons
- Paper coffee cups
- Used baby diapers
- Aerosol cans
- Ceramics and pottery
These items cannot be recycled because they contain chemicals, grease or wax that will contaminate the basic recycled items. For instance, different colors of ink will bleed on paper. Shredded paper destroys the strength of the fibers needed for recycling it into other paper products. The grease in pizza boxes will harm any recycled items they might be used for.
It would be interesting to see a list from all these schools of the products that must go into the trash pile. That would become a new target of zero trash, a new research project for professors and a few good research papers for students. It could even lead to a dissertation or two.
Reverse Logistics Is Changing Our Definitions of Supply Chains
How does this reverse logistics effort impact the supply chain? It creates new supply chains.
Schools like VCU are doing much more than giving free refrigerators to incoming students. They are adding a new direction for product supply chains. Overall, these programs are changing the definition of supply chains.
Of course, all online schools cannot compete in RecycleMania, but online degrees can promote an awareness of the reverse logistics business. American Military University is one of the few institutions of higher learning that offers a B.A. in Reverse Logistics and a Master of Arts in Reverse Logistics Management.
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About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, at Fort Lee, Virginia.
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