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Finding (recycleable) treasure in the trash

By Sustainability Office on April 18, 2014

By Claire Lichtenstein ’16

Before attending Colgate University, environmentalism wasn’t on my radar. The capacity for an individual to make a huge impact on the environment went over my head. I remember learning about recycling as the environmental practice that an average Joe can do, but I wasn’t convinced that it was even a topic of concern. How can recycling a piece of plastic or two change levels of carbon emissions in the atmosphere? I just wasn’t buying it as one of the major ways to combat the environmental issues our planet has been facing.

My mindset has changed drastically since taking my freshman seminar at Colgate, called Global Change and You, taught by Professor Catherine Cardelus. This class was structured as an intro to concepts of environmental studies, and each student was encouraged to pursue an individual focus. We learned about recycling as one of the most important weapons against greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling keeps materials out of the landfill, which reduces pollution caused by landfill gas. According to the Campaign for Recycling, “Landfills are designed to be anaerobic, meaning that once waste has been dumped, very little air remains below the surface. Landfill gas is generated as a byproduct of the digestion of organic materials by organisms that thrive in these anaerobic conditions. Food waste, paper, grass, and other organic matter is readily digested and turned into landfill gas, which is 50 percent methane. While most modern landfills are required to capture some of their methane emissions, significant quantities continue to escape into the atmosphere.[1] Thus, recycling can save significant portions of material from arriving at the landfill, and reduce the possible gas emissions that they could cause.

Not only is recycling economically beneficial, but recycling materials eliminates unnecessary emissions that are incurred when the product has to be made from scratch. For example, take aluminum cans. According to Keep America Beautiful, the energy needed to produce one aluminum can from virgin ore can be used to produce 20 cans from recycled materials!  Also, tossing away an aluminum can wastes as much energy as pouring out half of the can’s volume in gasoline. The organization also writes that the “pollutants created in producing one ton of aluminum include 3,290 pounds of red mud, 2,900 pounds of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), 81 pounds of air pollutants and 789 pounds of solid wastes.[2]

After learning all of this, I decided to focus my research on recycling at Colgate.  I teamed up with Breanna Giovanniello ’16, a fellow Green Raider, and we completed trash audits at home hockey games, in order to assess how much recyclable material was being thrown into the trash.

We spent four hours after various hockey games going through the trash collected at Starr Rink. Armed with face masks, lab coats, and a scale, we discovered that there were incredibly high levels of “mis-recycling”, simply because of a lack of convenient recycling bins next to trash cans, or a lack of knowledge about proper recycling rules.

We found that many of the trashcans were filled with recyclable items. In fact, during one game, the trash bins were full of only 55% of waste, while the rest was full of compostable or recyclable.

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It became frustrating going through the trash and seeing the results of a nonexistent education about recycling on campus, so I tried to learn more.

Over 75% of waste is recyclable, but people only recycle about 30% of it[3]. At Colgate, we participate in competitions like RecycleMania to improve our recycling rates and educate the average student about the importance of recycling. I decided to ask a few of my peers about their feelings on recycling and I found their responses very interesting:

  • “Colgate tries to recycle, but without appropriate accountability for an individual, people can mis-recycle and not worry about it.”
  • “I can never find the recycling bins! They barely have them in classrooms, and even less generally outside on campus. This leaves me with no choice but to throw a plastic water bottle in the trash for convenience’s sake.”
  • “I find it hard to understand how people so easily ignore recycling bins all the time. There will be a recycling bin next to the garbage can, and they will put recyclables in the garbage can!”

It is obvious that the average student wants to consciously make an effort to recycle, but they might not know specific recycling rules or realize how integral recycling is to helping the environment. Through my work in the Sustainability Office, I am happy to see that I have become a resource for friends and peers who will ask me questions about proper recycling.  As an institution, we must become transparent and available to answer questions and educate students about our recycling practices and its importance.

What about you?  Do you recycle at Colgate?  Want to learn more about recycling at Colgate?  Start here!

[1] http://www.campaignforrecycling.org/faq/ghg

[2] http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=recycling_facts_and_stats

[3] https://www.dosomething.org/actnow/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-recycling

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