From the vending machine to your hands to the Union’s plastic recycling bin to the curb outside then to a truck that brings it to Rocky Mountain Recycling plant, where it is sorted, shredded, melted and used to make another product (which probably ends up back in the vending machine). In a perfect world, this is the ideal cycle for a water bottle.
The U has invested time and money into creating a recycling program that is easy for students on the go, yet plenty of recyclable material gets lost along the way. The custodial staff has to toss at least one bag of recycling a day when students contaminate it, such as by throwing a can of open soda into the paper recycling bin. Barbara Bingle, custodial crew leader, is frustrated by how many bags of recycling she throws out daily because of this.
“There is a lack of information — just because it is a can or a bottle doesn’t mean it is all the same recycling,” Bingle said.
Once one dirty pizza box is thrown into the recycling, the whole collection is contaminated. The custodians are not supposed to reach their hands in to remove it, because broken glass and other trash can be dangerous.
Students Take Charge
This lack of information is what a new group on campus, the Recycling Ambassadors, is trying to tackle. In a new non-credit course offered through the Office of Sustainability, about 20 students meet to learn about recycling and table around campus to raise awareness.
Morgan Newmiller, a junior in exercise and sports science, has enjoyed educating students about sorting and placing items in the proper recycling bins on campus.
“It makes it so easy to recycle,” she said.
After tabling at various locations on campus, she is surprised by how conscientious people are of recycling. Yet their actions do not always match their words. She stood with other recycling ambassadors at the Huntsman Center, and they tallied the many paper, plastic and aluminum products tossed in the trash cans right beside a recycling bin.
Sarah Martinez, a senior in environmental and sustainability studies, performed a survey of U students and found that while the majority of students think recycling is valuable, they do not know much about it.
Recycling at the U has increased over the years, especially plastics. Still, aluminum and paper recycling have decreased, something Joshua James, recycling coordinator for Waste Management, said is actually a good thing, because it shows we are not producing as much trash as in the past. Recycling should be the last step after reducing and reusing, he said.
The recycling program at the U, which began in 2007 through the efforts of a group of students, has grown over the years as the campus has partnered with Rocky Mountain Recycling to accept more plastics. Currently, the U’s main campus recycling only takes plastics 1 and 2, but James hopes to add plastics 3 to 7 in the near future. He is also working with Momentum Recycling to include glass recycling on campus and to eventually have a compost bin.
The problem is the cost to maintain the recycling program. Recycling stations cost about $400 to install and James said even though they are all over campus, students still walk right past them and dump their paper or aluminum in the trash. James said the U does not need more recycling stations, but rather more strategically-placed bins, ideally near exits.
Yet, James ran into problems even recently with new buildings that did not want recycling bins for aesthetic reasons. The Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building was one that originally wouldn’t allow him to place recycling containers inside. After complaints from both students and faculty, the bins were allowed.
“That’s what it takes,” James said. “It takes someone from the inside.”
The swim team also reached out to Waste Management to receive recycling bins, which James said is a big step because athletics on campus produce a lot of waste. In the football facility, James said there is not a culture to recycle.
“It’s very frustrating when I am out there helping the guys with one cardboard trailer and I personally have thrown in 30 of those boxes that hold Powerade bottles,” he said. “Yet, we do not see one bottle of plastic from that building. That drives me insane.”
Where to Recycle?
Some of the confusion about recycling on campus depends on where you are. On main campus, recycled items are placed into separated bins for plastic, paper and aluminum, and go through a multi-stream process. In the dorms and the Huntsman Center, single-stream bins collect plastics 1-7, paper, tin, cardboard and aluminum all together.
At the sorting facility of single-streamed items, there is a recovery rate of 70 to 75 percent, but James said after watching how many things do not get separated, he doubts even that much is recycled.
Martinez, who teaches the recycling class for recycling ambassadors, led a class trip to Rocky Mountain Recycling to observe the facilities.
“We went there, and it was actually very eye-opening … You go to the facility and plastic bags are just flying everywhere,” she said. “They have these gigantic piles of recycling [material], and it really makes you think.”
Recycling is important, but she believes people should reduce and reuse before they have to recycle. Martinez also noted that many items in the recycling plant are contaminated on the line while workers sort items by hand. Sometimes, when workers do not understand the importance of recycling, she said, they do not put in the effort.
James admits there are some custodians at the U who “make every excuse possible to just throw recycling away.” While some custodians will make the effort to remove those dirty items, not everyone does.
James, Martinez and others who support recycling hope that when people understand the why behind the mindset, they will be more likely to practice it. Whether it’s students tossing plastic in the trash or custodians tossing a whole bag of contaminated plastics, those items that do not make the full recycled loop end up in landfills.
“You could take, as a little kid, your favorite action figure and bury that thing and have two generations later dig it up and it will still move. It is not going anywhere,” he said. “Every single one of those pieces of plastic … is going to stick around for a long, long time.”
James hopes, though, that small efforts can change this cycle. For instance, the U is hosting Recycle Day on Thursday, April 14 at the parking lot by Rice-Eccles Stadium from 8 a.m. to noon. It is open to the community, and anyone can recycle personal documents or electronics.