A student treks toward Memorial Hall, headphones in and head down, trying to dodge the throng of students weaving their own paths to class. An empty plastic water bottles swings in his or her hand. Scattered in front of Memorial Hall, the student will pass several garbage bins; The recycling bin would take him or her several feet out of their route to class. With a flick of the wrist toward the trash bin, the water bottle is gone and the student makes their way up the large stone steps, without a second thought or a glance back.
This is the type of behavior Michelle Bennett, the university’s sustainability manager, is determined to change.
With her hair held back by a purple bandana, Bennett grabs her small, brown notebook and makes her way to the second level of the Planning and Project Delivery offices. Her face bare and her clothes simple, Bennett appears to be the poster woman of a sustainability leader.
Recycling, she says, is a constant and ongoing battle universities face. This year, however, there could be immense progress in combatting students’ seemingly apathetic attitude toward recycling. Bennett and her team of six student interns have applied for, and received, a grant from the Delaware Department of Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), for approximately $180,000. The money will be allocated mostly toward signage to be plastered all over campus.
Bennett’s leading intern, sophomore environmental studies major Matt Horelick, says the main goal is to increase students awareness of recycling on campus.
“Exposure is a big thing,” Horelick says. “[Students] seeing [recycling] on campus and making it seem like a norm.”
While the grant will cover the entire cost of the posters and signage, it only provides funding for a portion of new recycling bins. To obtain the bins, Bennett says, the university will have to match funding.
“The grant touches on a bunch of different departments within Facilities,” Bennett says. “It touches on dining services, custodial, grounds ― it touches on ResLife. When the grant came back and said ‘we need matching funding’― we went around to those groups and said, ‘okay, who wants to throw money in the bucket.’”
According to Bennett, energy consumption is technically the largest sustainability issue the university has. Recycling however, has come to the forefront of her and the intern’s efforts because while it is also a major issue, it is also the issue students and faculty members discuss with Bennett most.
“It’s something students can have the most impact on,” Horelick says. “They can’t have as much of an impact on total energy use on campus as they can recycling.”
While there are students who have expressed interest in bettering on-campus recycling, the feeling of apathy remains present. Throughout the year, Horelick and the other recycling interns consistently send out polls via Facebook or other forms of social media. While a popular answer as to why a student may or may not recycle is inconvenience, Horelick and Bennett believe there is more to the issue than that.
“Laziness and apathy are the biggest problems,” Horelick says.
Though the contracts to finalize the DNREC grant are still in the bargaining phase, Bennett and Horelick have pushed forward with recycling efforts. Currently, the university is participating in RecycleMania, a nationwide program where universities compete to see which can have the best recycling results. According to the university’s sustainability website, the goal is to raise awareness about this other “R-word.”
After week four of the competition, which took place between Feb. 26 and March 4, the university was ranked 112 out of 172 schools for diversion ratings. A diversion rate is the percentage of waste diverted from a landfill. Outside RecycleMania, the university’s diversion rate was 30 percent in 2016, a 4 percent increase from 2011.
If students visit the university’s sustainability webpage, there is additional information on RecycleMania, along with a thorough guide of which items are and are not recyclable. After the grant is finalized, Bennett and Horelick look forward to posters advertising that information all over campus.
Though Bennett and her interns are a small group looking to educate the thousands of students who may not recycle properly, Bennett is confident that this is an issue students, faculty and the university ultimately care about improving.
“Everywhere else I’ve worked, you have to justify the existence of the sustainability program and then once you spend half your time doing that you might get [only] a few things done,” Bennett says. “Here, everyone’s like, ‘yeah let’s do it, why aren’t we doing more of it?’ That’s like half the battle already won.”