What really happens to the recycling on campus?
Nearly every classroom, residence hall, office, apartment, student center or other inhabited area on campus has a little blue bin in it. Sometimes these are marked “single-stream recycling” or just “recycling” in residence hall rooms.
However, recently students have raised concerns regarding how efficient the recycling system on campus really is.
In a presentation that Michelle Bennett, the university’s sustainability manager, has given to multiple classes and organizations on campus, she warns about the consequences of specifically recycling contamination and the increased costs it may have on the university.
According to Bennett’s presentation, a common concern shared among those involved in the recycling process on campus is that, while the university has said that recycling gets sent to the recycling center in New Castle, contamination can lead to recyclable materials being diverted to landfills. The amount of contamination that warrants this diversion is largely left up to the discretion of workers at the recycling center. This can, and often does, mean that trucks carrying recyclable items get sent to landfills due to the amount of trash mixed in with them.
Another issue involves the nature of single-stream recycling: Most, if not all, of the single-stream recycling bins on campus use plastic trash bags. However, the state government’s website on single-stream recycling, which the university’s waste website links to, explicitly instructs the public to only include “loose” items in bins, meaning not putting items in garbage bags since plastic bags themselves cannot be recycled and they create hazards for the machines and workers at recycling centers.
Thus far, there have been no announcements from the university regarding stopping the use of plastic garbage bags in these bins. This has raised some concerns, namely: whether or not the university will do away with these garbage bags, whether the recycling disposed of thus far in this manner gone to landfills and whether there has been an effort to inform students that this waste does not get recycled, if that’s the case.
Zachary Roy, co-president of the university’s chapter of the Climate Reality Project, stressed the need for a bigger push for sustainability on an administrative level.
“We need to have a stronger commitment to recycling and sustainability at UD,” Roy said in an email. “If UD wants to be better, we need to have an Office of Sustainability.”
The university’s Waste website also says that containers with “a little food left” can be recycled, but the state government’s website contradicts this.
According to Delaware Recycles’s “Recycle Right” page, the public is instructed to “rinse all containers of liquid or food residue.” The university has yet to publicly comment on, or correct, this discrepancy which leaves innumerable food and beverage containers possibly being diverted to landfills due to inaccurate information.
The issue of recycling inefficiency and misinformation on campus is considered both an environmental and a fiscal matter, as, according to Bennett’s aforementioned presentation, recycling on campus receives over $100,000 in grant funding.
The issue of contamination may be worsened by the lack of dissemination regarding Sustainability’s “If you’re not sure, trash it” policy, which encourages people recycling on campus to prioritize only putting things they know for sure are recyclable over trying to recycle things they think might be recyclable. While this can mean a few recyclable items get sent to the landfill, it also lessens the chance that a whole bag of recyclable items ends up in the landfill due to a few pieces of contamination.
Overall, there is no completely correct answer to the question of “what really happens to campus recycling?” Some of it gets recycled, some of it goes to the landfill. Even then, the items that go to the landfill go there for a variety of reasons.
Michelle Bennett is the university’s sustainability manager. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.