Member Spotlight: Central Community College

Published June 01, 2020
This is part of a series of interviews with NRC members. The purpose is to provide insights into materials management programs and best practices of member municipalities, businesses, and service providers.

Central Community College has campuses in Columbus, Grand Island, and Hastings, as well as three centers in Kearney, Holdrege, and Lexington. We spoke with Benjamin Newton, Environmental Sustainability Director at CCC and NRC Board Member, to get an inside look at CCC’s sustainability program through the years.

NRC: What steps has CCC taken to reduce waste and incorporate more sustainable materials and practices? Can you describe what you have done and what your initial goals were?  

CCC: In 2012, single stream recycling was implemented throughout the college by installing recycle bins in the hallways and at individual desks. CCC’s campuses collect e-waste separately, calling a pick-up service when they have a combined five pallets worth. When contracting for construction, CCC requires contractors to submit a monthly sustainability report to ensure compliance to recycling and other sustainability policies. The largest waste streams on the campus are paper, plastic drink containers, and cardboard. 

Since the recycling program started, the diversion rates for the Columbus campus (assuming all containers are 80 percent full) is about 32 percent. The Hastings campus has had a 20 percent diversion rate, considering that the landfill and cardboard-only containers average 75 percent full on a weekly basis and the recycling compactor has an average of 1,500 pounds per month. The Grand Island campus has a diversion rate of 19 percent. However, this did not include plastic film recycling and the scrap metal recycled from the electrical lab. 

In May 2017, CCC installed new printers at all of its locations to reduce energy and paper consumption. Since then, CCC has decreased its paper usage by seven percent in comparison of the 2015-16 fiscal year. In 2016, CCC’s employees eliminated personal/office printers as a part of a policy to reduce paper consumption.  

In 2016, the hospitality management and culinary arts program on the Hastings Campus implemented a compost program utilizing two tumbling composter bins. It is estimated that about eight gallons of composted material is produced per week. In 2017, a small composter was purchased to further reduce the amount of food waste in the landfill. The equipment was also purchased for the Grand Island campus and Kearney Center. The composters currently serve faculty and staff rooms and have diverted approximately 300 pounds of organic waste from the landfill over a six-month period. This project is still in its initial phase and it will expand to serve the students in the future.

CCC’s dining operator, Chartwells, encourages the use of reusable containers with a discount program tailored to benefit those who bring their own food container.

November 2017, CCC’s three campus locations and the Kearney Center started the Trex Plastic Bag Kickoff Recycling challenge. The goal was to collect 500 pounds of plastic bags. In 2019, Central Community College was awarded a Trex bench made out of the collected plastic grocery bags, plastic film and wood fiber; the bench was added to the Columbus pollinator garden.

In 2020 the CCC business office has moved to all electronic internal paperwork and signatures.

NRC: How did the idea for making these changes arise in the first place?

CCC: Environmental Sustainability office was established in 2012 and implementation of these actions began immediately, as previously there was very little recycling being done at Central Community College. Efforts have progressed annually since then due to our Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) and Climate Commitment with Second Nature Inc.   

NRC: What were/are the most difficult aspects of implementing/maintaining the program, and how do you handle them?

CCC: Working with six different haulers at three campuses and centers in different communities with all different recycling practices and regular student/staff turnover.  

Regular communication in changes with haulers, facilities, and custodial staff helps ensure maintaining the program. I have interns on each campus that help with education and awareness through events and email blasts. Engaged faculty members and staff that are also committed to recycling. Standard signage at all locations showing differences in recycling practices.

NRC: Have there been any unexpected barriers?

CCC: Barriers to recycling have been the haulers not having a market for certain materials such as glass and plastic. Also, contamination is an issue with a community college, as students may only attend for a few years and also many community visitors onsite. There is frequent turnover of part time staff and adjunct faculty.

NRC: Have there been any unanticipated benefits?

CCC: Benefits for the Columbus campus were that Green Fiber is now paying to pick up our paper and cardboard. We no longer pay a recycling hauler in Columbus.

NRC: Has the program led to other sustainability initiatives or overall awareness of renewable energy, water conservation, greenhouse gas reduction, employee benefits, etc.? 

CCC: Central Community College has many sustainability initiatives and completed projects. A few highlights include:

CCC began purchasing hybrid electric fleet vehicles in 2012. As of 2018, 34 percent of the college’s fleet vehicles were gasoline-electric, non-plug-in hybrid vehicles. 

In 2016, a 1.7 MW wind turbine was built on the Hastings campus through a partnership with Bluestem Energy Solutions, Hastings Utilities and CCC. The wind turbine produces enough electricity annually to power the campus and any excess electricity flows into the Hastings Utilities grid.

In 2017, a new Kearney Center was built to LEED Silver standards with numerous energy-saving features. These features include daylighting in the hallways and classrooms, energy efficient lighting, Solatubes in two classrooms and one lab, SageGlass on east facing windows and a geothermal energy system.

In 2018, CCC purchased 350 solar energy shares in the Kearney Community Solar Project. Each share is equal to 150 kWh/month, which equals 100 percent of the average monthly electricity usage at the Kearney Center. CCC locks in a rate with a purchase power agreement between Nebraska Public Power District and solar developer SoCore Energy. 

CCC has improved the ability for its employees to videoconference, thus reducing the need to travel to meet in person.

From the 2013 baseline, CCC has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by over 50% percent.

Water use has decreased 42% since 2017 across all the campuses. This is due to less irrigation being used and also due to higher summer rainfall totals the last few years as well.  

For a full list of projects and initiatives, please visit: 

NRC: Are you tracking recycling, landfilling, reduction, and reuse (zero waste) metrics?

CCC: Since the recycling program started, the diversion rates for the Columbus campus (assuming all containers are 80 percent full) is about 32 percent. The Hastings campus has had a 20 percent diversion rate, considering that the landfill and cardboard-only containers average 75 percent full on a weekly basis and the recycling compactor has an average of 1,500 pounds per month. The Grand Island campus has a diversion rate of 19 percent. However, this did not include plastic film recycling and the scrap metal recycled from the electrical lab.

NRC: What have you done to engage the community/employees/customers?

CCC: Since 2017, CCC’s environmental sustainability office has hosted events across its locations throughout the month of April to celebrate Earth Day. These events allow local organizations to connect with CCC students and employees and for students to showcase their sustainability projects. A variety of presentations and tours give students, employees and community members the opportunity to learn about sustainability-related topics including renewable energy, waste reduction, ecology, agriculture, and research.

Since 2016, CCC has celebrated America Recycles Day on November 15 at the Columbus Campus. The event hosts representatives from local organizations including Nebraska Recycling Council, Green Fiber, ADM, Keep Columbus Beautiful and Shred Monster. Student projects from the Columbus campus environmental science class are also displayed. Attendees learn about proper recycling, how to reduce waste contamination and have the opportunity to sign a recycling pledge.

NRC: What are your goals or aspirations going forward?

CCC: By 2021 – Annually increase FSC-certified and post-consumer waste content of paper by 10 percent from 2019-2020 baseline.

By 2021 – Divert a minimum of 40 percent of college landfill and construction waste for recycle and reuse as well as begin a staff and food service-provider composting program.

By 2024 – Decrease college paper use to achieve a 25 percent reduction from the 2015-16 baseline.

NRC: How do you think you can reach those goals?  

CCC: Now with COVID 19 more courses will be offered online. We will REDUCE our recycling and waste from all locations. Also the Columbus and Hastings campuses our diversion rates were around 30%. To get the diversion rate up to 40%, better signage and more recycling education will be offered. However, I am a strong advocate of less packaging being used. Also our food service provider will offer to go containers and reuse your own cups.

NRC: How has COVID-19 affected your operations?

CCC: Central Community College campuses and centers cancelled all face-to-face classes on March 16 and move to online instruction. Also on April 13, all campus buildings and centers were closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Only supervisors and administration were allowed on campus with restricted access. Many common building areas have been closed. We will begin opening up at 30% staff capacity to employees on June 1st with not all areas open.

NRC: What are your biggest concerns going forward?

CCC: My biggest concern is that the pandemic will lead to more of use one time and throw away culture. Also that haulers in a depressed recycling market in smaller communities will end pick up of plastics and glass altogether and only pick up paper and cardboard. That has already happened on our Columbus campus.

NRC: Do you have any advice for others trying to improve their programs?

CCC: Constant education and standard messaging is crucial. Any confusion will lead to a throw away first mentality. Also getting the message out through education and events about Reduce first and then Reuse, and Recycle. Our partnership with Trex Inc. has been successful and utilized at all locations. Starting with visible programs such as plastic bag recycling and small compost programs in the break rooms first. Then you can improve and expand upon other recycling/composting programs, since our smaller pilot programs have been successful.

NRC: What do you think is the single most important thing to do or the most important place to start when implementing the types of changes you have made?

CCC: Make recycling convenient at your desk as an option, and have small office recycling education awareness meetings at their location. Respond to any recycling concerns or negative opinions with well researched data and benefits.

NRC: If you had the power to change anything in the overall system of materials management outside your business, what would it be?

CCC: An overall reduction in packaging waste and single use containers. Plastic bags, clamshells, straws, bottles should either be banned or paid extra for. Everyone needs to get in the habit of bringing your own containers as single use plastics are a waste even if recycled. Large online supply companies need to transition to eco-friendly biodegradable reusable packaging to reduce overall waste and recycling volume.

NRC: Have your interactions with NRC helped in this process?

CCC: I have lived in Nebraska three years and NRC has helped tremendously by providing resources for recycling and composting options. NRC has now also completed waste audits at our Columbus, Hastings, and Grand Island campuses which has helped us see where Central Community College can improve our waste reduction and diversion through solutions. I also have been quite active in seeking out NRC resources and providing input first as an advisory council member and now as a Board Member.

Thank you for your valuable insight, Ben!