UCalgary campus in the fall
University of Calgary

June 1, 2021

Students take active role to create real-life solutions for real-life problems at Zero Waste Challenge

Top 4 teams share prize money for their great ideas

An app to help you sort your waste. Dishes for dine-in at the food court. A website to repurpose lab materials. These are just some of bold ideas proposed by students in the Zero Waste Challenge that you might notice soon on campus.

During Canadian Innovation Week May 14 to 16, 75 undergrads, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars from 10 faculties gathered virtually to help solve a problem at the University of Calgary: how to reach the ambitious goal of becoming a zero-waste campus by 2030.

Led by the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking, in partnership with the Office of Sustainability, Facilities Management, and the Sustainable Energy Development program, the Zero Waste Challenge had students working in 27 teams to generate solutions that will help meet the objectives of the forthcoming Zero Waste Strategy. Teams were asked to develop an impactful and feasible project idea, define the steps for its execution, and present their solution to a panel of judges.

Sustainability is a multi-disciplinary challenge,” says Irene Herremans, professor, Sustainable Energy Development Program, School of Public Policy. “The Zero Waste Challenge participants formed teams from different degrees — undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc — and from a wide variety of disciplines.

One of the strengths of the event was that students from very diverse backgrounds came together to provide innovative solutions for waste minimization and elimination. Different points of view for how to tackle a challenge can be extremely valuable.

"The entire organizational team was very proud of the participants and the creative ideas that they presented.”

The challenge was the first event in the Hunter Hub Solutions Labs series, where participants use entrepreneurial thinking and collaboration to tackle interdisciplinary problems. This event in particular provided students with the opportunity to play an active role in creating impactful solutions for a real-world problem.

“We designed the Hunter Hub Solutions Labs as a new series that will capture the growing interest and passion students have for solving key societal issues and reaching key sustainable development goals,” says Keri Damen, executive director of the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking. “It allows them to build interdisciplinary skills as changemakers, no matter what career path they take.”

Over the weekend, students heard from a wide variety of experts in waste-related issues, including a keynote presentation by Melissa Gorrie, president and co-founder of Waste Free Edmonton, on stopping waste at the source. Students were able to ask questions directly to the presenters and incorporate their advice into their projects.

At the end of the challenge, each team was required to submit a five-minute video and a one-page brief that outlined their proposal. A panel of judges representing the University of Calgary, The City of Calgary, the Recycling Council of Alberta, Innovate Calgary, Bow Valley College, and Coca-Cola Canada Bottling Ltd. then scored the teams based on their presentation skills and their proposal’s rationale, feasibility, and potential of making an impact.

From a total of 17 final proposals, the judges decided to divide the $3,600 prize pool among the top four teams:

  • Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Through Research: A proposal to create an easy-to-use web platform and a skills lab that will connect stakeholders across the university, including faculties and students, allowing for reduction, repurposing, and recycling of lab materials.
  • An education resource app for mobile devices, which informs users about what existing sustainable resources are available to them on campus, such as the location of waste bins and an easy guide to waste sorting.
  • A Waste-Free World in Our Cafeteria: Solutions to reduce the amount of waste produced in the MacEwan Student Centre, including condiment dispensers, vendor-supplied reusable dishes for dine-in, and incentives for customers to bring their own reusable containers, such as monthly draws for gift cards.
  • A proposal for UCalgary to minimize the amount of paper used in course examinations via a shift to an online format — computer lab technology, laptop/tablet library lending program, or 24-hour exams — and support for instructors in the development of alternative assessment methods (such as experiential learning, group projects, presentations, and oral exams).

“It was inspiring to see how the students applied their skills, knowledge, and passion to generate new ideas that can enable our campus to realize the Zero Waste Strategy,” says Rachelle Haddock, manager, sustainability partnerships and engagement. “By engaging in this co-curricular experiential learning opportunity, students were developing their sustainability leadership competencies through engaging with subject matter experts and peer-to-peer learning, and I think they had fun while doing it.”

Students who are interested in taking their ideas further are encouraged to apply to the Hunter Hub’s Launchpad program, which provides the training and resources they need to transform their ideas into action. The team at Facilities Management will be next to review all submissions and assess how these ideas can contribute to the shared goal of a zero-waste campus by 2030.

“Facilities Management, and Caretaking in particular, wish to thank the Hunter Hub, the Office of Sustainability, the Sustainable Energy Development Program, and Ancillary Services for the successful partnership in hosting the Zero Waste Challenge,” says Ana Pazmino, co-ordinator, recycling and solid waste, Facilities Management. “A very special thanks to all the judges, presenters, and mentors for their time, support, and dedication, and to our sponsor Coca-Cola. We value the enthusiasm, participation, creativity, and contributions of students in such an important strategy for the university.”

Irene Herremans is also a professor in the Haskayne School of Business.