Office of Sustainability implements new recycling policy

Anne Accardi | Contributing Reporter

The Office of Sustainability is refocusing its public outreach efforts to promote greater recycling success following last spring, when the highest percentage of rejected waste in years was sent to the landfill. Fifty percent of Washington University’s recycling last spring was rejected.

This statistic was brought to the Office of Sustainability’s attention during the 2016 Recyclemania, an annual competition that brings universities from across the country together to compare strategies for a greener campus.

“During the month of March and April [2016], we had a significant number of dumpsters, particularly Bear’s Den and Knight/Bauer, that were rejected from the recycling center because the loads were considered too contaminated,” Cassandra Hage, sustainability manager at Washington University’s Office of Sustainability, said.

In the past, most, if not all, of the University’s recycling has been accepted by the recycling center. This is due in part to the thriving recycling market that has persisted for the past several years. Recycled materials could be sold for a substantial profit, meaning that recycling centers had greater incentive to accept all recycling loads, regardless of contamination level.

“Something is recyclable if there’s a market for it,” junior Auggie Mense, student associate at the Office of Sustainability, said. “So, conceivably, anything could be recyclable, and also conceivably, nothing could be recyclable.”

Portions of Washington University’s recycling were rejected last spring, when the recycling market started to weaken. Contaminated loads were no longer profitable, so approximately half of the University’s recycling was redirected to the landfill.

“Often, recycling gets ‘graded’ in terms of the quality and the contamination,” Mense said. “And the market did take a hit, so our [recycling] that was coming in at a lower grade was no longer really profitable for the recycling contractor to go ahead and recycle.”

According to Hage, the contaminated loads result primarily from food residue. Students often recycle to-go boxes, plastic utensils or other containers, which still contain any level of contamination from leftover crumbs to full meals. Any food residue contaminates the entire load of recycling.

The Office of Sustainability’s previous slogan, “When In Doubt, Recycle,” may have contributed to students throwing non-recyclable items in the recycling bin.

“Initially, there was a big shift on campus toward a ‘When In Doubt, Recycle’ model,” Hage said. “Because people really truly do want to recycle, they were almost too gung-ho with that approach.”

Given the weaker recycling market and the decreasing likelihood that contaminated recycling loads will be accepted, the Office of Sustainability is switching tactics.

“We have a new slogan, called ‘When In Doubt, Sort it Out,’” Mense said. “For the most part, we’re all really intelligent students, and since we’ve also updated the waste signage, it is as simple now as reading the signs.”

The Office of Sustainability implements a multifaceted strategy for achieving their goal of a zero-waste campus, with a Recycling Genius program that works to address the education around proper sorting and to reduce contamination and a partnership with Bon Appetit to simplify the products available on campus.

Sustainability volunteers also post signage around campus, instructing students about how to properly sort their waste, and this signage, also available on the Office of Sustainability website, is an effective solution for many students.

“I think the school does a really good job of letting you know exactly what to do, with all the signs,” freshman Andy Lewis said.

The fall 2016 semester saw an improvement in waste disposal, and only 12 percent of recycling loads were rejected.

With just a little extra effort, Hage said, students can ensure a reduction in the contamination levels of recycling loads, which will improve the University’s sustainability efforts.

“This is a very fixable problem,” Hage said. “Once we get the word out that those to-go boxes should either be composted or put in the landfill and not recycled…we’ll be well within the threshold to return to zero rejected loads.”

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