Sorting out Sorting

When you toss a coffee cup in the Union or a Gatorade bottle at the ARC, where does it go? Before facing eternity in a landfill or being recycled into new materials, it is first hauled to the University’s Waste Transfer Station (WTS). Since 1987, the WTS has been collecting and sorting all campus waste. Ten years later, campus went “green” and added a recycling baler to the building. Decades later, where do we stand now? To find out, the Green Observer attended a guided tour of the facility led by Tracy Osby, the WTS Coordinator.

The tour started in the Station’s south bay, where non-food-prep waste is dropped off. The waste is then pushed onto conveyor belts which carry it inside to be sorted. Armed with elbow-length gloves, people on either side of the belt pick out recyclables and place them into sorted piles. Because the conveyor belts are constantly moving, sorters are unable to remove every recyclable from the waste stream. These missed items ultimately end up in a landfill, rather than being repurposed for new materials. Therefore, it is important that recyclables are tossed in the appropriate bins in the first place. According to Osby, this is the number one problem faced by the WTS. His goal is a campus-wide system of uniform waste containers that specify where items should be tossed. With clarity and uniformity, people will be more likely to correctly place items in the appropriate containers. By streamlining the system, sorters will not have to pick misplaced items out of the waste stream and the campus’s waste diversion rate will increase considerably.

According to Osby, auxiliary units present the greatest challenge to a uniform container system. These buildings have a different type of contract with the WTS. While waste is hauled on a daily basis for most campus buildings, auxiliary units call for pick-up only when they need it. This contract is more casual and does not provide the WTS with control over how the building sorts its waste. Each unit uses a different system, from the Student Dining and Residential Programs which effectively sort all recyclables, to the State Farm Center which does not recycle at all. Sitting somewhere in the middle is Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. If you’ve ever attended a play or concert at Krannert, you may have noticed their waste bins, which say: “Where’s the recycling? It’s right here!” They claim that all waste will be sorted by the WTS later, so no separation is necessary. While this is true, it creates two substantial problems.

First, it allows for contamination of otherwise recyclable products. For example, if you dispose of coffee in the same bin as paper, that paper becomes tainted and is no longer recyclable. The second drawback is that this system does not educate people about proper recycling practices. Without sorting their waste, people will not become habituated to recycling and caring for the environment. In order to address this problem, Osby mentioned that he would soon be providing Krannert’s staff with a special guided tour of the WTS. He seemed doubtful that this would result in any systematic changes, but was determined to persist nevertheless.

As the tour continued, Osby explained that recyclables collected by the WTS are sold to recycling companies for processing. However, the WTS only recycles plastics 1 and 2, cardboard, newspaper, and office paper, because they are common and provide the greatest income value. On the other hand, the WTS does not sort out plastics 3 – 7 or glass. These materials are worth the least amount of money and are received too infrequently to make the effort worthwhile. Even so, the University is considering expanding our recycling program to include such items, in order to achieve our waste reduction goals outlined in the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP). This would help us to increase our waste diversion rate, which currently ranges from 45 – 55%, to our goal of 75% by the year 2020.

When the tour came to a close, Osby added that he is willing to provide more recycling bins to any building that needs them. If you notice a lack of bins as you travel around campus, let Osby know using the “Request a Bin” link on the F&S website.

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