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Zero Waste Future: UW Sustainable Management Graduate Finds Success Helping Her Company Become More Sustainable

UW Extended Campus February 10, 2014
Photo of UW Sustainable Management student Maggie Layden.

Maggie Layden spends her workdays measuring her company’s carbon footprint, water usage, and how much waste the company is producing. But she’s not necessarily combing through waste bins to see just what, and how much, her colleagues are throwing out – at least not on a daily basis. Instead Layden, who received her Sustainable Management degree from the University of Wisconsin, leads a highly organized effort to improve the company’s environmental impact as a facilities support technician and the Zero Waste Project Team leader for American Family Insurance, headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin.


“Really what I’ve become is a sustainability subject matter expert for facility operations,” Layden says.

Layden’s responsibilities include monitoring her company’s environmental impact and reduction efforts, as well as its trash and recycling habits. She works with the metrics for the facilities operations department and is responsible for relaying graphically the company’s usage and reduction progress. But Layden’s knowledge in sustainability led her to take on the role of Zero Waste Project Team leader when the company decided it wanted to incorporate a zero waste initiative into its culture. This is where combing through trash bins became helpful, and took Layden to the company’s waste hauler, Pellitteri. After having the contents of two forty-yard compactors spread out on a warehouse floor, Layden literally walked through the field of trash to see what her company needed to do to improve its waste and recycling efforts.

Part of implementing the zero waste initiative is to ensure that less than 10 percent of the company’s waste is going to a landfill; a task that takes planning, research, and strategic education of employees.

“Education is a major part of the project. What’s organic, what’s not organic, where can they recycle their organics, how can they make decisions that will benefit the program,” Layden says. “The second part was simplifying the program. Right now we have some parts of our recycling program that are not well understood across the board. We want to simplify those parts to encourage participation.”

As Layden takes on this growing task at American Family, she says she’s leaning on the knowledge and skills she learned while earning her UW Sustainable Management degree. Layden says the collaborative program initially helped improve her already existing skills in project management.

“I really got a lot out of the systems thinking classes and I already had some project management background,” Layden says. “But I really think I improved those skills through the courses.”

The UW Sustainable Management program is a collaborative program with UW Extended Campus partnering with six UW campuses throughout the state, working together to provide an online educational opportunity for students in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. The campuses include UW-River Falls, UW-Stout, UW-Superior, UW-Green Bay, UW-Oshkosh, and UW-Parkside. While the program is online, students are assigned to a “home campus” to give them greater access and consistency in accessing resources such as advising, career assistance, libraries, and financial aid offices.

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Layden says the UW Sustainable Management degree has helped her as she works through the challenges of building within her company a program that requires a high degree of educating, research, and communicating in a way that makes sense on a business level, while focusing on:

  • Social progress that takes into account the needs of everyone
  • Protection of the natural environment
  • Careful and considered use of natural resources
  • Steady and increasing levels of economic growth and employment

“The Sustainable Management degree set me up for success in a career in business, which is something I didn’t expect when I started it,” Layden says. “I really learned how to phrase my arguments in a way that makes business sense and achieves the social outcomes that I am looking for.”

Taking on the zero waste initiative and growing it at the Madison headquarters is a heavy task for Layden, as she and the company look to expand the practice beyond the Madison headquarters office.

The zero waste project is fairly new to the company – and has devoted a full-time employee to the effort only since early 2012 – but Layden says she expects her role to grow and evolve significantly as the role of sustainability grows and is better understood.

“On a really broad level, sustainability, like many key trends, is a journey not a destination. It has really evolved from doing what is required to creating a shared value,” Layden says. “The early stages of sustainability were about catching up, and the future is about integrating sustainability into our core business.”

Layden says she plans to continue using the education she received through the UW Sustainable Management program, and her company’s passion for improving itself, as she molds her career into one she hopes will have a positive impact on the future.

“Each of us has the opportunity to think about how sustainability drives innovation and what that means for our own lives, our schools, our communities, our business organizations, and our overall well- being,” Layden says.

To learn more about the UW Sustainable Management program, contact a helpful enrollment adviser at 608-800-6762 or

Programs: Sustainable Management