Since Western Carolina University’s recycling program was instituted in 1988, it has never really had one person fully responsible for guiding its direction.
That changed in September when Jeff White became WCU’s first recycling coordinator. Since then, White has been assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the university’s program, while becoming familiar with all the stakeholders across campus that are involved with recycling.
“I think they’ve done a tremendous job with limited resources,” White said. “I do know that since Lauren Bishop has been the director of sustainability the last several years, the recycling rate on campus has increased significantly, but we’re still having issues with the diversion piece of it.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I was hired – not only to coordinate recycling and waste reduction efforts on campus, but to help design a program moving forward where we’re able to add perhaps a little bit more labor and looking at spaces we can use for some of the recycling program to take us to the next level.”
Several new initiatives will be implemented this semester, starting with the distribution of about 2,000 recycling totes to all freshman and first-year transfer students. The students will keep the totes in their rooms to collect recyclables, and then empty them in a larger bin in a common area. The totes were purchased by WCU’s Sustainable Energy Initiative, a committee comprised of students, faculty and staff advisers charged with allocating money towards the implementation of renewable energy, energy efficiency improvements, research and internships on campus. The money comes from a $5 per student, per semester fee.
Also new this semester is WCU’s participation in RecycleMania, a national collegiate recycling competition. RecycleMania is an eight-week tournament held each spring featuring a friendly competition between colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada to promote waste reduction activities to their campus communities.
“We’ll be competing against Southern Conference schools who participate, as well as getting some national attention by participating in the program,” White said. “It’s going to give us some important data in terms of the amount of waste.”
One of the current goals is to find a way to increase WCU’s diversion rate, which is removing recyclables from the waste stream. During the fall semester, students in an “Environmental Science 495” class conducted a Capstone research project in which they set out to characterize recyclables that are being thrown out in classroom trash cans and determine how to improve recycling. They examined practices in 22 classrooms in Stillwell and Killian buildings.
During the first three weeks, trash was collected and sorted by type from classroom trash cans. Thrown-away recyclables were sorted, weighed and counted. During weeks four through six, 22 recycling bin stations were placed in the hallways, while trash also was collected and sorted from classrooms trash cans. Informational and comical signs were placed in classrooms.
During weeks seven through nine, all classroom trash cans were removed and replaced with new signs to direct traffic to new recycling stations.
The results showed that 50 percent of waste in the classroom trash cans was recyclables. Among those were 2,428 plastic bottles, 1,172 plastic cups, 829 plastic food containers and 582 aluminum cans. During the second three weeks, plastic and glass found in the trash cans decreased while aluminum and paper increased.
When trash cans were removed during the final three weeks, there was a 60 percent increase in recyclables in recycling bins, while recyclables in landfill bins increased by only 7 percent.
Removing classroom trash cans from 22 classrooms saved two hours per workday in operation and maintenance costs leaving time to spend on other duties.
“The class study was extremely helpful,” Bishop said. “Basically, we’re trying to implement some best practices that will not only help us increase our diversion rate, but also our cost savings operations and maintenance savings.
“We were able to utilize student education. They were able to do something that we did not have the time or the resources to do. It was a pretty incredible project. They provided us with a really powerful sales tool and recommendations for rolling this out campus wide. In our minds, it was extremely valuable.”
WCU currently collects mixed paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass, plastics, printer cartridges, small electronic devices, batteries, fluorescent lamps, food and oil waste from dining services, and construction waste and scrap metal.
The more recyclables that are removed from the waste stream, the more money WCU saves, White said. WCU is charged per ton for waste that is hauled to the landfill, in addition to hauling fees. For recyclables, the university is only charged for hauling. Since 2009-10, WCU’s recycling volume has increased by nearly 100 tons.
“Anything that we can get out of the waste stream, the value added economically for us is we’re not paying to haul that material to the landfill,” White said. “Environmentally, it speaks to many issues. I’m exploring not only opportunities to maybe increase our revenue stream, but to capture additional materials that can be recycled and that there are markets for.”
For more information on recycling at WCU, contact the Office of Sustainability and Energy Management at 828-227-7442.
By Marlon W. Morgan