A Conversation with Raj Rawal about Waste in The Hague University

Rajash (Raj) Rawal is a passionate educator and member of the Executive Board of The Hague University of Applied Sciences. In the fifth episode of Mission Zero’s podcast, Wasted Tales, he voices the main protagonist: Walter the Wastebin. Walter works in a prison where waste management is a huge challenge, just like it is at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. In a conversation with the leader of the research project Circular Operations Management, Rachel Kuijlenburg, Raj discusses his vision of waste management within the university. By reflecting on famous quotes, he explains the steps being taken to make the university more sustainable.

Raj and Kim

Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Mahatma Ghandi.

“The slogan of our university is ‘Let’s change. You. Us. The world’. We want to make people aware of the consequences of their actions, and in terms of achieving “Mission Zero”, everyone has a contribution to make, no matter how large or small. For me, I think the first thing is to raise awareness, and from that, people will then realise why what they do has an impact, and what they need to do to make a difference.”

Never waste a good crisis” – Winston Churchill

In the past few months, THUAS has been making modifications to the building that aim to facilitate sustainable actions for those who frequent the building. There are new labeled waste bins which inform trash throwers of how to separate their waste, and new water points for people to fill up their water bottles. Small incremental steps are being taken towards a bigger change. The corona crisis has presented an opportunity to make these changes quicker, as Raj explains below.

“One of the conscious decisions we made when the first lockdown came was to take advantage of the empty building. There’s less that you can do when there are 26,000 students walking around in the building. The benefit is that there is less debate about changes when no one is here, so you can actually get on with it, and there are less issues of a culture change. Nobody will come and question the new bins; they are now just confronted with a new world.”

“There are many other positive outcomes in terms of waste, for example we certainly print a hell of a lot less. The amount of printing we used to do, often a first draft that would only be used once was an absolute waste! So in that respect, I think hopefully, and it seems a bit strange to say this, but because people are paying for their own paper at home, they're not necessarily buying it as much, so they print less. I hope they'll continue those practices when they come back here eventually.”

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion” – Paulo Coelho.

Making the physical changes is a first step, however, as the character Walter is frustrated by improper trash disposal in his ecosystem, THUAS also faces the challenge of changing human behaviour.

“Even though it’s labeled, people throw things in the wrong bin, there’s lots of ‘intruders’. Often it’s well intended, sometimes it’s also confusion, because you have double packaging on some things – plastic cap, foil etc. The strangest thing is… and we haven’t analyzed this, but in some parts of the building, some of the bins are used better than in others. We’re trying to find out why, and one of the first conclusions relates to academic disciplines. So, if for example, faculty X has been proven to have the most contaminated bins with intruders, maybe we should name and shame. Because then, students can step up, and realise that they should be a bit more careful with that. Or, look at it more positively and say "Okay, that's where we need to do a bit more of the education". It's up to us to take the change that we've made responsibly, and act accordingly. I think that can help. By the other token, of course, you can also say the places where the recycling has the most impact, is also something where we want to applaud that effort. So, both could be useful.”

“Willful waste makes woeful want.” – English Proverb

The meaning of this proverb is that if you deliberately waste, eventually you desperately want.

Our board of directors makes strategic choices that serve greater goals and values. THUAS has renewed its procurement policies to serve sustainable outcomes, for example, only offering biodegradable cutlery in the catering. Recently, THUAS has started working with Renewi, which is a sustainable waste recycling company. Students, however, still bring food and drinks into the building, which include a lot of unsustainable packaging.

“In the context of waste, you’ll sow what you reap, it will come back and haunt you. It’s difficult to limit, and packaging is an issue. People want to buy things that are gimmicked and glossy, and 90% of the time, it’s the product inside that should be important, but the box becomes more important. Obviously, that leads to a pathway that is ultimately treacherous.”

To nudge students to reduce waste is more complex than it appears at face-value.

“This is a discussion I have a lot with students. They say, ‘stop selling plastic bottles of water’, but we don’t sell them, the caterers do. We don’t always have as much say in what they sell as people tend to think we do. As an organization I think we should try and set examples, we can always have dialogue, we always try and say to people ‘How environmentally aware are you? What is the impact you’re trying to make?’. What we can do is provide places for people to get rid of excess waste. I think that ultimately, it’s a societal thing. You notice this more and more with students that will raise this issue, and it helps us put it on the agenda more.”

“We don’t have to engage in grand heroic actions to participate in change, small acts when multiplied by millions of people can transform the world” – Howard Zinn

“The thing with Mission Zero, of course, is it's the zeitgeist of our time at the moment. So, everybody wants to be part of that vehicle. I think you have as a centre, more requests for placements, research, etc. You can't cope with the requests that you get. That's an absolutely fantastic thing, but the point is to go beyond the zeitgeist, to go beyond the point where it's trendy, but it's also still important. I certainly have felt impact, we as an institution want to check ourselves as to how sustainable we are, how clean we are. I think that our centre helps us do that. So yes absolutely it makes a mark. But it's got to be more than just a mark.