Recycling Contamination Rates Higher Than Ever: Dorm Recycling Could Be Cut

Recycling contamination rates at Bates are higher than ever. If contamination is not decreased, recycling from residential buildings may be cut. This would mean that all recyclable items from dorms — plastic water bottles, cardboard packaging, etc. — would be picked up as trash. 

Contaminated recycling is created when nonrecyclable items are put in the recycling bin. If more than five to 10% of a bin is contaminated, all of the contents, including recyclable materials, are diverted to the landfill where they are then incinerated, releasing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Recycling reduces air pollution by avoiding incineration, and it also conserves resources by reusing material instead of extracting new resources to build products from scratch. 

“We only have preliminary numbers right now,” said Thomas Twist, Bates Sustainability Manager and leader of the Bates EcoReps, a team of students working toward increasing sustainability in the college. “But we know that we have fallen from pre-COVID levels of 20-30% of our waste stream being recycled to around 15% being recycled today.” 

This decrease in recycling rates is partially due to contamination, which is mainly a problem in residential buildings. Academic buildings have exhibited cleaner recycling bins, meaning the recycling program is not threatened at that level. 

Bates uses the waste services company Casella Waste. Twist explained that Casella Waste’s guidelines around recycling contamination have recently become more stringent, and it is important that Bates puts out recycling that is as clean as possible in order for it to be picked up. If recycling in dorms is not improved, there is a real chance it may be removed completely. 

Common contaminants include plastic bags, masks and containers spoiled with food waste. “One thing that confuses a lot of people is that if something such as a pizza box can normally be recycled, it must go into the landfill if it has any food residue or grease on it,” explained Carly Harris ‘22, a member of the EcoReps waste group. 

Many students are concerned about sustainability at Bates. Harris noted,​​ “A big concern I’ve seen recently is a lot of students feeling like there is too much single-use plastic around campus right now. Particularly in Commons with the plastic utensils, many COVID-19 protocols have led us to produce a lot more waste over the past two years.” 

For those worried about sustainability, educating themselves and their peers about how to better recycle is a good place to start. Harris encourages students to “take the time to put items into the right bins in your room, and if you don’t know where something goes, look it up or put it in the landfill if you are really unsure. The best thing students can do to protect recycling in dorms is to sort their waste correctly!”