Compost? Plastic? Metal? Paper? In many buildings on campus, this is the dilemma students face.
At Penn State, students are encouraged to sort their waste into different bins based on the commodity they are recycling, composting or trashing.
At the end of the day, custodians and commons workers will sort these bags, where they will then be sent off to the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority (CCRRA).
CCRRA is where garbage will be flattened so it can be sent to landfills, and where recyclables will be made into bales or other means of collection to be sold to recycling plants.
This process isn’t always easy — students are often unknowingly responsible for contamination in recycling bins, meaning materials aren’t correctly separated by students. For example, trash that cannot be recycled might be put in the plastic bin.
While instances like this can create bumps in the road for the process of recycling, it doesn’t make it impossible. This is how Penn State handles its recycling:
Student sorting and multi-stream
The first part of the recycling process —when students dispose of their trash, compost and recyclables — can get tricky.
Penn State uses a multi-stream recycling system in which commodities are sorted into labeled bins such as plastics, glass, paper, trash and compost. This is in contrast to a single-stream system, where all recyclables are gathered together and sorted later at a plant — the system most students are familiar with before coming to Penn State, according to EcoReps senior program coordinator Ryan Dincher .
“At least when I came here, that was a huge transition,” Dincher (senior-supply chain and information systems) said. “And this is really something that every student has to understand in order to be effective at recycling. So as a program, that's what we're going up against.”
Dincher said EcoRep’s metrics from last year show that within residence halls, typically only 20 percent of waste is recycled, leaving the other 80 percent for the landfill. In reality, 87 percent of that waste is actually recyclable, he said.
“If I was in a perfect world, I think making it single stream would obviously increase recycling rates,” Dincher said. “This is really something that's out of our control, at least in the short term. There's no talk of changing that or even a possibility of changing it.”
Dincher also said switching to a single-stream program wouldn’t make sense economically for Centre County. The switch would require a lot of change and expensive equipment that isn’t necessary, considering the size of the county.
In addition to this, Penn State’s Sustainability Institute employee education and engagement coordinator Lydia Vandenbergh said a single-stream system would not be as effective.
“We thought it was important to keep those streams as high value as possible, and that means to have them with as little contamination as possible,” she said. “More and more municipalities and regions went single stream, and now what we're seeing is they're starting to reverse that because the contamination rates are so high.”
Vandenbergh said these high contamination rates are a big part of the reason China won’t take recycling from the United States anymore.
According to Rubicon Global — a technology company that provides full-service solid waste management, recycling and “smart city” technology solutions — the United States’ average contamination rate is 25 percent, meaning that for every bale of recyclables you have, 25 percent of that material will not be the intended recycled material. The higher the contamination rate, the less likely someone is to buy those recyclables.
“We're pretty good on metals. We're pretty good on glass. Where we have difficulty is the plastic and the compost,” Vandenbergh said. “And that's why we're upping our education to help people understand that.”
The role of commons workers and custodians
Throughout the day, student workers and custodians will monitor and empty the trash and recycling bins.
This process has caused confusion for some students, causing some to think that Penn State doesn’t recycle in the first place, or that all of the material gets thrown in a landfill anyway.
This isn’t typically the case.
At Penn State, recyclables are thrown into clear bags so that whoever is removing the bag can judge whether or not it is okay to be recycled, or if it is too contaminated.
Dincher explained that there is actually a “huge” financial incentive for Penn State to recycle.
Recyclables cost Penn State half of what garbage does. Dincher said this is because when trash goes to a facility, a company has to collect it and find a place to bury it in the ground.
“[Throwing away garbage is a] waste of real estate, waste of time and effort. Whereas if they recycle, and it's good recyclables, they can go and they can sell it to another company, which drives our costs down,” Dincher said.
Vandenbergh added that another reason students might be confused about the recycling system is partly because of the interactions they see custodians and commons workers have with the recycling.
In places like residence halls or the HUB-Robeson Center, custodians will take the bags from the recycling, compost and garbage, and transport them all in the same big cart.
“[Students are] assuming that all of that is going to the same place,” Vandenbergh said. “What they don't realize is that we have specific colored bags to indicate where the materials are going.”
Compost bags are green, garbage bags are black, and recycling bags are clear, so custodians can judge whether or not they are contaminated.
Vandenbergh said some schools put signs on the carts to let students know they aren’t all going to the same place.
Though the recyclables are separated in their own bags, they are transported to CCRRA in the same truck, which CCRRA’s education coordinator Amy Schirf said can make it complicated for the workers to separate without contamination.
CCRRA collects all of Penn State’s trash and recyclables, as well as these materials from the Centre County community.
Schirf said the role of CCRRA is to be the “middleman” between Penn State and the companies that actually process the recycling.
Here, recyclables and trash are sorted. CCRRA collects everything from propane tanks to flat-screen TVs. Then, there are also the traditional recycling items, like plastic, glass and paper.
CCRRA collects 400 tons of trash every day and 12.5 tons of recycling a week. According to Schirf, the yearly total ends up being about 100,000 tons of trash and 15,000 tons of recycling.
She noted CCRRA is not the only place in State College that takes recycling. Other large companies like Walmart do, too.
Once recycling is sorted, some of it — like plastic, paper and aluminum — is made into bales, ready to be sold to a recycling plant.
Schirf said there are trends in regards to how much recycling is collected. From the Penn State White Out game against Michigan this year, CCRRA was able to make four bales of aluminum. Each bale weighs 1,800 pounds.
“We get around 20 to 30 tons of recycling from every home game,” she said.
Despite some student assumptions that CCRRA doesn’t like taking recycling from Penn State because of how contaminated it is, Schirf said that’s not true.
“We do get contamination from Penn State, but if we get a bag that has contamination in it, we just don't throw the whole bag away,” she said. “We sort it.”
Schirf gave the example of receiving glass recyclables from Penn State, which she said can be gross. Trucks will dump the glass onto the glass pad, and then workers will sort glass by color and remove any trash.
“We wouldn't want to throw anything away that could be recycled,” she said. “It just wouldn't make sense to us because we sell our material.”
Schirf said Penn State typically does a good job in terms of not contaminating materials that come from multi-streams, but things can get complicated in places with a single recycling bin, which hinders multi-stream recycling.
“If you're in the parking deck, and there's a blue bin there that says ‘recycle,’ you look in there that's going to be almost 100 percent trash,” Schirf said. “But you go to just one of the buildings, and there's all these bins labeled, those are good.”
Overall, Schirf said Penn State’s recycling is “50/50,” some being “really good” and some being “really bad.” She added that Penn State is working on relabeling signs and promoting other avenues of education.
“Contamination is a problem everywhere,” Schirf said. “It's not just, ‘Oh, Penn State's the only one that contaminates.’”
Because of her line of work, Schirf said she often looks in recycling bins wherever she goes, and there’s always contamination.
“In my opinion, it's just because people don't know,” she said. “If they knew the right bin, they would put it in… sometimes people just don't realize that where they're putting stuff is in the wrong spot.”
Schirf, Vandenbergh and Dincher all expressed it’s not that students don’t care about recycling — it’s that they just don’t know enough about the topic.
“It's very rare to find a student that says that they don't care about the environment, that they don't care about recycling,” Dincher said. “I don't think the issue is necessarily caring. I think it's… educating them in a sense on; how do you actually do something about it? How do you use the system?”
Dincher said EcoReps tries to convey to students that what they’re doing with recycling has an impact. He added they try to make recycling seem easy to students, advising them to focus on just one aspect of recycling if it’s new to them, like just knowing to recycle water bottles.
“Just really encouraging students along with that education from our perspective is the only way to be successful,” Dincher said.
Vandenbergh said the Sustainability Institute has many resources to help students learn more about recycling. It does presentations, uploads educational videos, posts helpful information on its website, answers questions through email and is hoping to develop a “recycling A-Z” list where one can find out what to do with just about any item.
The team also has developed consistency with the use of images and posters, using materials at Penn State that are similar to ones already used within the county.
Sometimes, signs with directions for specific examples are helpful, like showing that Starbucks cups aren’t actually recyclable. The institute has also been focusing more on the impact of recycling that students can make.
“It helps people not only motivate them to want to recycle more, but they actually do it. Now, our messaging is a lot about, 'Hey, did you know that that paper is going to be used to make new paper?’ and ‘Remember that box that you just got from Amazon? That's probably made with some of your recycled paper,’" Vandenbergh said.
Not only is recycling good for the environment, it’s good for the economy. Vandenbergh said the recycling industry supports the jobs of 66,000 people in Pennsylvania.
“It is part of our economy that, again, is trying to address the issue of waste. I don't think anybody likes waste,” Vandenbergh said.
At the end of the day, Vandenbergh reiterated recycling is an individual responsibility with a big impact.
“It's kind of part of our responsibility to take what's left over and do something positive with it,” she said, “and that's recycling.”