Bellingham—this bizarre surrealist natural splendor of a town, where the waves meet the mountains, Jurassic greenery adorns roadsides, bike riders are ubiquitous, and organic food is as common of an occurrence as the rain. Of course Bellingham is home to one of the most environmentally aware universities in the nation, along with 12,000 environmentalist students.
But wait just right there for a minute; lean your bicycle aside. Because for all of our peddling and co-op shopping, we all just might be misinformed. Our recycling practices, that is, just might be misinformed.
Being the respectful Western students that we are, of course we recycle on campus. Of course we know those bright blue barrels on campus will graciously accept recyclable goods. But who’s behind these blue barrels? The Recycle Center is one of the best kept secrets on campus. Located just south of campus down a long gravel road, the RC, as with most AS programs, is completely student run. With a modest staff of 3 student managers, a dozen or so student laborers and a full time coordinator, the Recycle Center is responsible for all of Western’s recycling. This small staff of less than twenty people recycles 4,000 lbs. daily from the 500 barrels collected on campus weekly.
Richard Neyer, the coordinator of the Recycle Center explains the function of the RC as a “resource for what is recyclable and demonstrating how to recycle on campus.”
Initiated in 1971 as one of the first university recycling programs in the country, the Recycle Center has grown from a student club operated out of an old house recycling about 250,000 lbs. a year (in 1989) to a multi-faceted program with its own small fleet of trucks and three forklifts, recycling about 1,000,000 lbs. annually.
For all its pounds of recycling, it’s interesting to note that the Recycle Center receives absolutely no funding from the actual AS. In 1989 the state of Washington passed a law requiring all universities to recycle. This law allowed for the Recycle Center to release its financial dependency on the AS and start charging the university itself for recycling pick up. The recycle pick up sites on campus are divided into three categories that are charged separately. University Facilities Maintenance is responsible for paying for the academic building’s recycling, Housing and Dining is responsible for residence hall pick up, and University Food services is responsible for dining hall pick ups. Virtually all of the RC’s funding is derived from these three sources.
A small percentage of funds are also derived from selling the recyclables themselves to Northwest Recycling, who buys Western’s recyclable products for a modest price and sends them to proper processing facilities.
Virtually financially independent of the AS, the RC still acknowledges that the final step to a completely efficient and impressive recycling program is an educated and aware student population. Shelby Cooper’s job as the Recycle Center educator is to accomplish just that—a recycling savvy student body. She stresses that the biggest challenge is to teach each year’s incoming freshman dorm population how to recycle at Western.
Cooper explains, “Recycling at Western is different than at their [new students] hometowns. Students need to adjust their recycling habits.”
Currently, Cooper and Neyer are focusing on creating more adequate and clear signage for the recycling depots at all residence halls on campus, in an attempt to clarify the recycling process. Cooper is also working to recruit eco-reps in residence halls to act as ambassadors for the Recycle Center, promoting recycling awareness and acting as facilitators communicating between the RC and the campus community. An educated recycling community on campus allows for the recycle center to more efficiently recycle, as a large portion of a laborer’s job is spent sorting through recycling, throwing away what people have mistakenly attempted to recycle. If the public were more aware of correct recycling procedure, less energy would be expended sorting and could be used to make our campus even more environmentally friendly.
So if we want Western students to recycle why not place a recycling barrel next to every trashcan? The answer to this often asked question is simply practical. First of all, it simply is not cost nor energy efficient to place barrels next to all trashcans simply because the cost of extra barrels and paying employees for extra pick ups would exceed the amount of money the RC brings in. Currently, there are approximately 500 barrels placed throughout campus. And currently the RC is at maximum capacity in their ability to pick up those 500 barrels efficiently while still remaining financially sound.
“Keeping recycling cheap ensures its long term effect,” said Neyer.
Secondly, there is the problem of contamination. As Neyer explains, often when a recycling bin is placed next to a trashcan the two receptacles end up each being 50 percent trash and 50 percent recycling. Though these are significant obstacles, Neyer remains committed to the idea of placing more barrels on campus and reworking ideas of how to make it more cost effective and possible.
However, Neyer is quick to add the part student responsibility plays.
“When people buy a product it is their responsibility to recycle it, even if that means hanging on to the container until they find a recycling barrel,” said Neyer.
In short, the Recycle Center is an essential resource to aid in campus recycling, but students must do their part to ensure success.
Also, as a former Recycle Center employee myself, I think that part of recycling responsibly should be out of respect to your peers. Instead of organizing programs from a desk chair or crafting cappuccinos like many campus workers, RC laborers are outside, rain or shine, driving trucks around and heave-hoing impossibly heavy barrels back to the center where they sort through thousands of pounds of soggy paper, moldy food and rusty cans. If out of anything, we as a campus population can recycle more conscientiously just out of common courtesy and respect to our less than glamorous hard working peers.
So what will these open mouthed blue containers happily accept? Well they’ll take your aluminum and tin cans, your glass and plastic bottles (it would be great if you would rinse them out and throw away lids), your mixed paper, your batteries (in a separate bag or box and labeled) and your cardboard (breakdown boxes please!). And what should you leave to go to the landfill? At Western, we cannot recycle yogurt containers, plastic bags, food, Styrofoam, milk cartons (including soy milk), and Starbucks/coffee cups.
Better yet, instead of throwing those items away, try to minimize your reliance on disposable substances and instead bring your own bags to the grocery store, buy in bulk to try to reduce packaging, and use reusable water bottles, mugs and food containers.
As Cooper explains, “One of the easiest ways students can help is by using reusable mugs, just to reduce waste. Recycling is good, but reducing your waste is even better.”
So here you have it, Bellinghamsters, peddle on--but remember ignorance isn’t so blissful here. And breakdown your boxes.