Due to an increase in recycling standards, much of Bates’ recycling is getting rejected, instead going into Maine’s landfills. As a result, Facility Services is considering removing recycling from troublesome dorms to combat the problem.
This news has sparked increased efforts by the EcoReps, Bates’ student sustainability group, led by Director of Sustainability Tom Twist.
“If I had to guess, I bet 80-90 percent of the student body is doing the right thing,” Twist said. “I think most people get it and care. But there is a [high] contamination rate…if that doesn’t resolve itself, there is a very real possibility that [recycling in select areas] could go away.”
A roll back in recycling would be a huge setback for campus sustainability efforts. This emerging issue is not the result of changing habits on campus, but instead reflects a recycling crisis trickling down from the global scale.
In 2017, China announced that it would no longer accept imports of trash and recycling. Before Jan. 1, 2018–the start of the ban–China used to recycle approximately half of the world’s plastic and paper. The U.S. and other Western countries have struggled to cope with this change, and recycling on a large and small scale has suffered.
Five years ago, a ton of recycling cost the college nothing. This increased to $30, $60, $90 and now sits at $120 a ton. Trash has also increased in price over the years, though not as dramatically, and currently costs $140 a ton. While it may not be much, there is still a small economic incentive for Bates to recycle.
With this rise in costs came an increase in standards. Previously, 15-20 percent trash contamination in recycling was acceptable. Now, the standard is five percent, and Bates is struggling to reach it.
“We just did this huge thing of becoming carbon neutral and that’s awesome and amazing and it would really stink if then we got rid of recycling,” Oliva LaMarche ‘20, a member of the EcoRep’s Waste, Compost and Recycling sub-group, said.
If recycling exceeds five percent contamination, it is rejected by Casella, Bates’ recycler, and becomes trash. According to Twist, even a single errant bag of trash in a truckload of recycling can spoil the whole load.
Currently, there is too much trash mixed in with recycling. This is in part due to carelessness and the “wish-cycling” of optimistic, yet naive students.
“It’s really frustrating that we have two clearly marked bins and we can’t get people to properly sort,” LaMarche said. “Time and time again, we’re seeing custodians have to deal with these bins that they say sometimes the recycling and the trash look the same, they’re just intermixed.”
The EcoReps are approaching this dilemma in numerous ways. For years, they have been working to reduce single-use waste on campus.
Seniors may remember the paper cups which were discontinued in Commons, beginning 2017. Commons used to go through 750,000 cups a year; the EcoReps advocated to replace these cups and instead provide each student with a reusable mug, eliminating waste and common recycling contamination.
Additionally, the Waste Compost and Recycling sub-group has been auditing all of the trash rooms on campus, counting the number of bins and checking to make sure the color and information is up-to-date and consistent.
Smith, Twist said, has one of the cleanest trash rooms on campus. The EcoReps have been using it as a model to calculate how many trash and recycling bins per student should be in each dorm.
Recycling bins in Frye Street houses are particularly bad. Here, trash rooms are often tiny, out of the way and have no room for extra bins. Come Sunday morning, these rooms are overflowing with cans and trash from on-campus parties. There is no weekend pick-up by Facility Services; once the bins are filled, the only room left is the floor where everything mixes together.
To make matters worse, recycling can be confusing and labor intensive. All containers must be washed out; this is often a challenge for toiletry bottles like shampoo, or food containers such as peanut butter. Additionally, items such as pizza boxes, wax-coated cups and styrofoam are not recyclable. StonyField yogurt cups should not be put in the mainstream recycling and must be taken back to Commons instead.
During waste audits, LaMarche said that the EcoReps find numerous random items which have no place in the recycling bins. Once they even found a cake, LaMarche said.
“It’s not the custodians job to be like ‘this is a nice recycling, but there’s cake in it so let me take out the cake and put it in the trash,’” she said. “Come on, you know cake isn’t recyclable!”
Unless Batesies learn to sort their trash better, it is a real possibility that Facility Services will reduce recycling on campus. There are no malicious intentions behind this; no one wants to get rid of recycling, but if nothing changes, it may be their only option.
“My initial reaction was to be mad, because I didn’t think about the reason why,” LaMarche said. “But when Tom explained it and I thought about it more, I was just really frustrated. From Facility’s standpoint, it makes sense…if the recycling is super contaminated with trash and liquid, then they’re going to have to send that waste to the landfill, it’s their only option. If they’re seeing this time and time again, then I can see where they are coming from.”