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Student-run recycling system combats hunger and homelessness in New York

By Sustainability Office on January 31, 2018

In Fall 2017, Colgate student Christina Weiler ‘21 and Cornell student Eleonore Baughan ‘17 founded UCan, a TIA project that encourages recycling while combating hunger and homelessness in Utica, NY.

UCan is a recycling system that collects, recycles, and redeems beverage containers on college campuses, using the generated money to fund hunger relief programs and affordable housing projects designed to accommodate homeless families.

“UCan was founded with the mission to change the way waste is collected. We believe it is possible to transform the overconsumption of single-use materials into an economic opportunity to enact social change,” Weiler stated. “UCan is also a behavioral study. We’re curious to see if giving people the option to do local, social good incentivizes recycling, more so than current municipal waste collection.

UCan is a business model designed to be replicable at universities and urban settings across the United States. Currently, at Colgate, UCan bins are set up in over 13 academic and residential buildings. Students can toss empty $0.05 deposit beverage containers such as water bottles and soda cans into UCan bins. Every week, a team of student volunteers transports the donated bottles and cans to the local redemption center, where they receive a monetary reimbursement.

All raised funds go directly to two programs coordinated by the Rescue Mission of Utica, a nonprofit organization. These programs provide nourishing meals for the hungry or homeless communities and furnish an affordable housing complex in Utica, NY.

“Every student can play a role,” Weiler said. “The most important action is to remember to recycle all bottles and cans in UCan bins, rather than the trash or conventional recycling bin.”

UCan hopes for students to be empowered by the difference they can make, simply by recycling their favorite beverage containers. The participation of students, staff and faculty alike is crucial, since every additional beverage container recycled allows UCan to further support local homeless communities.

UCan is also working with Cornell University to establish a partnership with fraternities and sororities on campus.

This effort has the potential to utilize the refund of 2 billion containers – $144 million – each year from the universities located within ten states under the Bottle Bill. Volunteers, founders, and participating organizations are excited about their beginning efforts to fortify the recycling industry, clean up college campuses, and work to alleviate hunger and homelessness across the country.

UCan is looking for more student volunteers to play a variety of roles, from loading beverage containers onto the UCan truck on collection days to inviting other schools to participate in UCan. Please email cweiler@colgate.edu if interested in being a part of the UCan team.