Personal waste management in higher education: A case study illustrating the importance of a fourth bottom line

Judd Michael, Nathaniel Elser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Purpose: This paper aims to propose a quadruple bottom line approach for higher education leaders who must decide whether to accept sustainability initiatives that do have not have a business case. The authors describe a personal waste management program at a major university to illustrate how a quadruple bottom line framework may impact decisions to adopt a sustainability practice in higher education. The authors also demonstrate how opportunity costs can be applied to better understand the true costs of such waste management programs. Design/methodology/approach: This exploratory research uses a case study approach with a unique accounting method to determine the costs of a personal waste management system. System costs are calculated for the entire university and for sample units within the university. Findings: University leaders chose to continue the new waste management program in light of evidence showing higher than anticipated costs. The authors illustrate how this decision was driven by consideration of a fourth bottom line, that of the educational value of the sustainability initiative. It is discussed whether proposed sustainability initiatives such as these should be evaluated using a traditional triple bottom line framework, or, in the case of higher education, if equal consideration should also be given to factors related to the educational mission of the institution. Originality/value: The authors develop a quadruple bottom line framework to explain the frequent implementation of economically costly sustainability programs in higher education contexts. This paper also reviews the rise of “personal waste management” programs at higher education institutions, demonstrates how the value of employee time can and should be considered as a cost of a comprehensive campus sustainability program (i.e. recycling and composting) and illustrates a novel means for using opportunity costs to determine those costs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)341-359
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 23 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Education


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