Consider your average Monday morning: maybe you pick up a coffee on your way into campus. Later, you swing by College Library to pick up a book, and on your way out the door you take your final sip and then toss your cup in the bin—but which one?
Sustainability professionals constantly wrestle with how to create a shared knowledge base for recycling practices. UW-Madison utilizes a multi-stream recycling system, which is different from the typical, single-stream curbside recycling in the City of Madison. The University separates waste into five primary streams: trash-to-landfill, mixed paper, office paper, commingled recycling (cans, glass, and plastic), and compost (available at select locations).
Why go through the effort of sorting our waste? Quite simply, the University is paid per ton of recyclable material it sends to the Materials Recovery Facility, but not all recyclable material has the same value. Let’s take paper as an example: UW-Madison receives close to ten times more money for “office paper” (like copy paper) than for “mixed paper,” which includes cardboard, colored paper, and magazines. Meanwhile, the University must pay to get rid of trash. This means that recycling as much as possible, and recycling properly, is good for both the environment and for the University’s bottom line.
Yet this financial picture should not lull Badgers into “wish-cycling,” or trying to recycle an object about which one is unsure. Contamination of recycling streams has become one of the biggest problems in sustainability, with entire recycling loads ending up in the landfill. This defeats the purpose of the recycling system and the intentions of well-meaning consumers. As surprising as it may sound, the best advice is not to recycle automatically or wishfully; rather, it is to follow the motto, “when in doubt, throw it out.”
While recycling has grown more and more complex, both locally and globally, the Office of Sustainability (OS) is working with other campus partners to simplify recycling and clean up our waste streams.
Over the past year, OS staff and interns partnered with Professor Bret Shaw, graphic designer Brooke Weiland, and College Library Director Carrie Kruse to explore recycling issues, habits, and solutions at College Library. What started off as a hashtag (#RecycleRight) evolved into a data-centric pilot that engages staff and students alike in learning better sustainability practices.
Following an early release of Weiland’s new signage designs at the #StudyStrong event at College Library, the signs were installed throughout the building in November 2018. To combat contamination, the signs showcased prominently what not to put in a given bin, as well as educating patrons on what items were appropriate. In order to measure impact, interns from the Office of Sustainability conducted trash audits both before and after the signs were installed.
#RecycleRight yielded strongly positive results. Before the new signs, close to 12% of the recycling at College Library was contaminated by trash items such as food waste and liquids, straws, and napkins. The landfill bins were not much better: 18% of trash items should have been placed in the recycling.
By March of the spring semester, however—with nearly four months of the new signage in place—trash audits revealed a 47% reduction in contamination rates in the recycling stream. Similarly, OS student interns discovered less plastic in the trash, resulting in a 23% decrease in contamination. Primary contaminants in the recycling included straws, plastic bags, and utensils.
“I’m thrilled that we were able to collaborate with the Office of Sustainability and College Library, using campaign ideas developed by students from the Department of Life Sciences Communication, to produce meaningful change in how people sort their waste at UW-Madison,” said Professor Shaw, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and Environmental Communication Specialist for the Division of Extension. “This positive outcome is testimony to the value of social science research to inform strategic communication that contributes to behavior change.”
As we look at these results, there is a clear benefit to improved signs—and therefore a clear need to expand the concept of #RecycleRight across campus. That means that the educational and behavioral work of the Office of Sustainability is far from finished.
While the success of that work partly hinges on more and better signs, however, an equally important effort will be to emphasize the first two words in the famous recycling triangle: reduce and reuse. The Office of Sustainability has no plans to ask the campus to “Stop Recycling,” but it may be time to re-evaluate recycling’s current reign. Indeed, it is worth advancing the discussion on the drawbacks of our society’s current recycling system and consumption overall. Often, sustainability decisions paradoxically pit convenience against environment benefits.
Still, the process of understanding and then making sustainable decisions—like learning how to recycle a coffee cup—plays a role in making large-scale change, and in turn may influence the way others make decisions as well.
Bret Shaw, Nathan Jandl, and Ally Burg will present #RecycleRight at the nationwide Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference in October.
For more information on recycling and composting at UW-Madison, visit our website and click on the menu bar for “Resources.”
By: Ally Burg and Nathan Jandl