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Zero Waste

Swarthmore has committed to becoming a Zero Waste campus in our efforts to reduce environmental harm and promote just and sustainable systems.

Since 2016, we have undertaken a substantial effort to reduce the waste that we generate and to divert waste away from incineration in Chester, PA and into compost or recycling. We have also built a fully campus-wide, “post-consumer” compost system that offers compost bins in every campus building, managed by our Environmental Services team and the student Green Advisors. Read on below and in the linked pages for more information about our baseline metrics, quantifiable goals, and community practices.

Managing Your Waste

Each of us contributes to waste that is generated on Swarthmore’s campus, and we can all play a role in being better neighbors and environmental stewards. 

If you have questions about whether to place an item in compost, recycling, or trash, please refer to our Waste Disposal Guide or the waste signs posted at waste bins throughout campus.

If you are planning an event and would like to explore best practice guidelines for reduction and diversion, check out the Green Events Guide created by our Events Management office.

If you are planning a giveaway, check out our Green Giveaway Guide. This guide can serve as a starting point for you to make the sustainable choice when purchasing and giving away items.

Zero Waste Plans

The College’s Zero Waste Working Group leads the College’s operational and educational efforts to achieve our waste targets. In the 2016-2017 academic year, the Zero Waste Working Group commissioned an initial report to summarize the status of campus integrated waste management.

In June 2022, Swarthmore College formally adopted the 2022 Zero Waste Plan, which establishes new goals for becoming a zero waste campus by 2035. The plan lays out strategies and priorities, summarized in the Executive Summary , for achieving these goals by cultivating a culture of zero waste on campus, reducing our per capita waste consumption, and diverting as much recycling and compost away from our trash as possible. 

Reusable Takeout Container Program 

The Office of Sustainability and Swarthmore Dining are excited to announce the launch of a 150-participant program for reusable takeout containers. The goal of the program is to improve our campus community's takeout and waste sorting experience, and reduce the total amount of waste we generate. A single reusable container can replace up to one thousand disposable containers! 

Information for participants:

1. You will have a dedicated meal plan added to your Onecard account, and be notified when it is activated.

2. The meal plan will start with balance of 2' tokens', which each represent a single reusable container that can be checked out.

3. To get a reusable container, simply make your meal reservation on GET as normal, and inform the cashier that you are part of the reusable program. You will be asked to swipe your card (and a token will be removed from your balance), and then you will be able to take a container to the food serving area. Please only use one reusable container per meal.

4. To return a reusable container (or multiple), bring it to the cashiers, place it in the collection bin, and ask to have a token refund. You will be asked to swipe your card to complete the transaction ( a token will be added to your balance). 

5. You do not have to wash your containers before returning them! Please report any lost/found containers to - DO NOT attempt to replace your lost container with another, OR  return someone else's container for them. DO NOT collect containers that may appear to be lost. 

Please feel free to reach out to with any questions or concerns!

Waste Characterization Studies
student sorting waste

A compost bag being sorted for contamination during a Waste Characterization Study. 


Each fall, the Zero Waste Working Group hosts a campus event, the Annual Waste Characterization Study, to sample waste data from buildings across campus. Bags of compost, recycling, and trash are collected from around a half-dozen buildings. First we track, by weight, how much was placed in each of those waste streams. Then we resort materials in each stream to determine if they were placed in the correct category (e.g., were there compostables in the trash stream?). By collecting these data and comparing across years, we can approximately determine our progress in diverting material away from trash incineration. 

Members of the Zero Waste Working Group, Green Advisors, and other Office of Sustainability interns also regularly conduct waste characterization studies for individual buildings at their request.

Waste Characterization Studies are designed to track diversion metrics, but are not conducive to tracking reduction. The Zero Waste Working Group is working with various haulers and processing facilities for our compost, recycling, and trash in order to improve tracking of our total waste amounts over time.

You can read the following Waste Characterization Study reports below.

Contact Our Zero Waste Team

Have more questions? Please feel free to email the Zero Waste Working Group at