A white Dodge Ram 3500 truck backed into the garage and carefully left enough room between itself and the large recycling bins stored on the bed. Once inside the garage, two workers hopped out of the truck and began loading large blue bins into the bed. It was the Monday routine for employees at the AS Recycle Center.
Tucked away to the south and practically off-campus, the Recycle Center is a student-run facility that handles all of Western's recycling. Items such as mixed paper, cardboard and all forms of plastic are collected, sorted and then shipped out to Northwest Recycling, a local processing plant.
The Recycling Center got its start in the early 1970s as a small group of student activists from Huxley College of Environmental Studies. In 1976 they were officially incorporated into the AS and received a full time advisor in 1987.
Today, the Recycle Center crew is made up of three student managers, one coordinator and ten students that work the routes. This group of 14 collects about 3,800 pounds of recyclable material each day.
On this particular Monday, Recycle Center employees Sara Brostrom and Rachel Allison were preparing for the south academic route, which covers two off-campus buildings and the nearby Physical Plant, the building for Western's maintenance crew. Normally this particular route takes around an hour to complete and an hour to sort. Other routes can take up to three hours just to collect the recycling, according to Brostrom.
Since this route was straightforward, Brostrom felt confident that the shift would move fairly briskly. Still, she worried about the fact that on Mondays containers are often overflowing with cardboard and mixed paper.
“The weird thing about recycling is it follows patterns,” she said. “On Monday there's usually a lot of recycling. When someone moves in or out of an office there's also a lot of stuff left over.”
Once the flatbed of the truck was filled with about 25 large blue barrels, it was time to head out. Our first step was the Human Resources building on twenty-third street. Brostrom parked the truck and removed two dollies from the flatbed, then took two empty barrels from the flatbed and wheeled the dolly inside the building. When they found a barrel that was full, they switched it out for an empty one.
Five minutes and a half a barrel full of mixed paper later, we used the hydraulic lift to load what little recycling we had collected. Apparently that day was a meager one for recycling in that area.
Working for the Recycle Center offers both women the comfort of never falling into the same mundane routine.
“Normally we only go into buildings on campus and take out their bins,” said Brostrom. “But these stops are not typical. They're a little out of the way. It's neat because these buildings mix it up a little bit.”
After a quick stop off at the Physical Plant, where two more bins were collected, we drove back to the Recycle Center for to begin step two: the sorting.
When a truckload is ready to be sorted, a group of Recycle Center employees separate the material by hand into their respective groups. Inside the garage, larger bins (about 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep) contain space for mixed paper, aluminum, plastic and glass. Cardboard is separated from the other items because there tends to be more cardboard collected in proportion to other recyclables.
One frustrating part of their job is cleaning out the various non-recyclable items students toss in recycling bins. According to Allison, there is nothing worse than reaching into a bin expecting paper and grabbing a hand full of rotten banana. Other items that students frequently drop in recycling bins are full sodas, sandwiches and fruit.
One of the best aspects of her job is the ability to use the Recycle Center to reach out to the community about waste disposal, said Allison. Like many of her coworkers, Allison is studying Environmental Science. She hopes to apply the knowledge she's gained in school and work to help others realize the importance of recycling.
“This is a great student job,” Allison said. “When you're a student there are enough other people to match your shifts. It's really flexible and in this job I feel like I'm making a difference. I'm not just coming here to do a job; I'm also constantly learning and thinking.”