Recycling at the University: Can we do better?

Colleen Donnelly, Contributing Writer

“STOP. THINK. SORT. It may be inconvenient, but it’s important.”

This slogan is displayed on or above blue single-stream recycling bins across campus, evidence of the University’s commitment to sustainability. The administration says that single-stream, “… [is] less expensive, it’s more green, and it’s easier.” While the system looks and sounds highly ecological, data shows that it may not be as beneficial as you’d think.

The University made the switch to single-stream recycling in 2012 after observing that the campus recycling rate had plateaued at around 20 percent. In a single-stream system, recyclable materials can all be placed into the same bin and are later mechanically sorted by equipment. This means that most items on campus are considered recyclable, with a few exceptions. The University states that “single-stream promises to make recycling easier for campus population and dramatically increase the recycling rate.” But have the benefits come to fruition?

Last year, the University recycled approximately 340 tons of material. Those 340 tons represent only 18 percent of our current total annual waste, meaning that our recycling rate has actually slightly decreased. Despite recent efforts to streamline recycling processes on campus, waste management still presents a significant challenge. With confusion about what is and what isn’t single-stream, many recyclable materials end up in the landfill. In addition, the University must pay a fee for any recycling loads that are more than 10 percent contaminated with non-recyclable material.

It’s not enough to simply have single-stream in place. In order to more efficiently utilize the current system and reach a targeted 60 percent recycling rate, the University must implement a fundamental shift in the way its community understands and participates in sustainability. This requires:

  1. Greater engagement in sustainability programs from faculty, staff, and students;
  2. New, comprehensive communications that will better educate the University populace about the single-stream system (redesigned recycling and trash bin graphics, informational literature around campus, structured recycling curricula, etc.); and
  3. Full support from the President’s Sustainability Council to commit the necessary time and resources to the development and implementation of sustainability policies.

Simply put, the University cannot be a leader in sustainability–a major initiative outlined in the We Do Campaign–if its recycling practices are minimal. Sustainability needs to be institutionalized from the top-down. This means leadership and administrative backing of a long-term recycling strategy, restructured cross-functional teams dedicated to effective recycling coordination, and reorganized recycling processes geared toward maximized efficiency.

Undoubtedly, too much non-waste is going to waste. If the University wants to lead by example, it has a responsibility to prove that recycling is not inconvenient, and that it’s more important than most of us recognize. If you want to lead by example, get involved in University sustainability efforts. Have ideas about how to improve campus recycling? Email me at [email protected].

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