Recycling the Idea of Recycling

I feel privileged to have been a participant in an annual ritual for at least 15 years. A fresh crop of bright-eyed, energetic and naïve student body officers delivers this message: We need to do more about recycling! This really meant we think you need to do more about recycling! However, last year's and this year's student officers have a new attitude. They're now saying we need to work together to do more recycling in a way that makes sense. We have had numerous meetings with these students, and every time, I felt their energy.

This is not to say that we are totally free of challenges as we struggle to implement a better program. After flirting with recycling for 15 years, we have gained some knowledge on the subject. The following perspectives have evolved from personal experience, from dialogues with people more conversant on the subject than I am, from my own and others' research, plus lots and lots of experience on campus.

-- Most people, especially on college campuses, will agree that recycling is the right thing to do, but want someone else to do the work.

-- Financial support and long-term commitment are essential to a sustained program.

-- It is a mistake to raid already strapped O&M budgets to subsidize recycling.

-- The effort will have the highest chance for success when a full-time recycling coordinator is appointed - someone who will spend much of his/her time working with the campus community.

-- Many types of materials can be recycled, including but not limited to construction materials, old keys and bathroom hardware, inkjet cartridges, telephone books, all types of paper, old electrical wiring and high voltage cables, precious metals from photography labs, cardboard, waste food products, polystyrene products, certain types of sewage, etc.

-- A few institutions that claim to have self-supporting programs are not always telling the whole story. Sometimes certain long-term capital costs are not fully included and/or the cost of utilities is ignored - and other times the total, loaded cost of labor is understated.

-- For instance, it may be assumed that there is no increase in workload for the custodian who has to haul recyclables to a dockside location, since she/he has to haul the same amount of waste. This is false, since the act of hauling recyclables will likely double the number of trips required to take the total waste stream to the destination, even if the receptacles are side by side.

-- On a college campus, staff and faculty toss at least as much paper as do the students. Enthusiastic students alone do not make a successful, sustainable program. The upper administration has to be totally committed recycling, as do the chairs, deans and directors - and then, middle management and front-line individuals.

-- There have been some successful attempts at combining recycling, surplus property management and disposal and other solid waste (garbage) removal into one organization. This would be defined as total waste stream management and might actually have a respectable chance of breaking even.

-- Recycling coordination can be housed in numerous organizational locations. I might argue, though, that it makes sense to place the function with auxiliary operations, since it should be a revenue-producing business.

-- Types and scale of programs are best determined in consideration of the local market place, available resources including capital equipment, land, building space, people and the distance to locations where gathered waste products are actually converted into meaningful products.

-- In certain geographic regions of the country, recycling actually pays for itself, or even makes a profit. In most regions, it doesn't.

-- Recycling can be done entirely in-house from collecting stuff from offices or classrooms, to bundling, brokering and even transporting it to remote processing plants. No matter which model is selected, it should not be implemented without a business model and with a realistic, if not skeptical, eye.

-- When getting started, every player has to agree on, commit to and support the short-term goals and the long-term vision. If this is not done, the coordinator and the program are likely to be recycled.

Just today, I read a Zen-like statement: Never test the depth of the water with both feet at once. There is a profound truth in that statement, especially when one is considering entering the world of recycling. Of course, one does need to know what the distance is to the other side before one starts to swim.

What is your experience?

Pete van der Have is director of Plant Operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at

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