Do we actually recycle?

Do we actually recycle? 

Jehan Godrej


Orginally published in Green Horizon.

Flash back to the Spring of 2008 – Barack Obama had just announced his candidacy for President of the United States, Bear Stearns was about to go bankrupt, and Whittier College had just launched a number of initiatives in hope of turning Whittier into a “greener” campus. It was at this time Whittier claimed to have launched its first successful recycling program in campus history.

Over the past two years, Whittier has embarked on conservation projects such as drought-resistant gardens and water-use reductions. Still, the school uses plastics widely, including in the Campus Inn and The Spot. Meanwhile, the Whittier College Sustainability Club (WCSC) has been raising the question among its members about how much and how well the campus recycles.

“Currently, there is a lot of confusion about how recycling is handled on campus. Honestly, right now, no one knows how effective our recycling program is,” explained third-year Co-President of WCSC Spencer VanDerStarren.

While the school places recycling bins everywhere around campus and advertises that it does its own recycling, some question whether the bins are actually serving a purpose. “We are all aware of the very nice recycle bins around campus,” said VanDerStarren. “Facilities has told us that because of miscommunication, they mix the contents from those bins with the contents from trash bins. Ultimately, most waste, recyclable or otherwise, ends up in the same dumpster. This is extremely frustrating.”

Professors from various departments also brought attention to the muddied picture when it comes to our recycling. Assistant Visiting Professor in Environmental Science and Biology Alexandria Pivovaroff attended Whittier as an undergraduate student and has a deep understanding of recycling on campus. “When I attended Whittier College, recycling was handled the same way as it is today ­— there was no designated campus recycling program,” said Pivovaroff.

The buildings and physical grounds of Whittier College are maintained by Facilities Service Partners Group (FSP). They are responsible for the housekeeping, maintenance, and groundskeeping services at the school.

A campus facilities worker, who spoke about Whittier’s recycling on the condition of anonymity, said a comprehensive recycling program would take too much work. “Although we have different bins for recycling and conventional trash, we deposit all waste into the dumpsters that Athens collects,” he said, referring to Athens Services, the local, privatelyowned waste collection and recycling company with which the school contracts. “We do not sort through anything or have a recycling pile.”

When asked about the College’s commitment to recycling, Head of Facilities Jonathan Estrella said the school tries to be responsible environmentally and fiscally. “The College is always looking for ways to be more sustainable and environmentally responsible. We are currently working on improving our waste stream through various means. Recycling takes resources to initiate and maintain, and can be costly to initiate. We have added the equipment costs to the capital expense project list for prioritization. “The College does recycle,” added Estrella, “but we hope to raise the level of recycling and lower our overall waste stream. The College also has a green waste program that is sent to the green waste processing location through Athens.”

Retired president Sharon Herzberger said Whittier supports recycling. “We do our best to sort through all of the schools’ waste and make sure Athens, the school’s contractor, helps us with this,” said Herzberger. It is difficult to have everyone recycle properly of course, but we do our best in reducing paper use and sorting everything properly.”

Athens Services advertises itself as, “One of the largest recyclers in Los Angeles County, committed to protecting the environment through mixed waste processing and other cutting-edge solutions.” Athens, which handles all of Whittier College’s waste, promotes the company as environmentally friendly and advertises that it will “recycle for you.” For some, it begs the question as to why there are recycling bins and recycling guides around campus if it all gets mixed together in dumpsters for Athens Services to collect and separate later. Are the recycling bins here for appearances sake  —  to provide the look and feel of a green campus?

Susan Ayala, Athens’ Government Affairs Manager said confusion about Whittier’s waste management could stem from the fact that the company collects both mixed waste (waste that is not separated) and waste that is separated by trash, green waste (compost), and recyclables. “We take all of Whittier College’s waste. The College does source separation before we pick it up.”

Ayala added that, in general, it takes about twice the effort to manage separated trash than it is to sort through mixed waste.

Pivovaroff provided more insight into this issue, “The Puente Hills Materials Recycling Facility accepts mixed waste, meaning that it has not already been separated at the source,” said Pivovaroff. “Because the trash is not separated by the consumer and instead everything is commingled, there is a high chance for contamination. If something recyclable is contaminated, it requires extra processing or is just sent to the landfill.”

Central to this is our own consumption and disposal habits. Because we don’t sort our own trash, we increase the chances of recyclable material ending up in landfills and contributing to more complex issues.

Even small liberal arts schools such as Whittier College have large impacts on their local environments. The average college student produces 640 pounds of solid waste every year. Recycling is critical to reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and, arguably, requires less energy than burning waste. Recycling conserves natural resources such as timber, water and minerals. The majority of environmentalists and scientists agree that recycling is good for our society and environment.

Yet, there are others who believe recycling is harmful to our environment and leads to overconsumption. Journalist Amy Westervelt wrote in her 2012 article for Forbes, “Can Recycling Be Bad for the Environment,” that “on the surface, it’s still a good idea both to recycle waste and to design products and packaging with the idea of recycling them in a closed loop. Unfortunately, in its modern-day incarnation, recycling has also given the manufacturers of disposable items a way to essentially market overconsumption as environmentalism. Every year, reports come out touting rising recycling rates and neglecting to mention the soaring consumption that goes along with them,”

Other studies support the idea that recycling leads to an increase in resource consumption. VanDerStarren adds to this by stating how critical it is to reduce before we resort to the last step; recycling. “Recycling helps cut back on pollution created by waste. It also saves energy and resources in comparison to using raw materials for production. While recycling isn’t inherently good for the Earth, it can be a helpful step in reducing our footprint. It’s important to remember that ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is an order of operations, not just a list. Reduce your consumption, reuse what you can, and then recycle what is left over.”

Speaking of reducing consumption, some wonder if something as simple as banning plastics on a college campus might result in a significant decrease of trash left around campus.

Whittier College’s catering service, Bon Appétit, provides a lot of plastic to the campus every semester. The Spot uses plastic bags, plastic cutlery and they sell plastic water bottles. When there is any outdoor event or dinner that Bon Appétit is catering for on our campus, it provides plastic plates, cups, forks, and knives to reduce the costs of washing the regular ceramic plates and other reusable utensils that are in the dining hall. Maybe it is time to consider a campus-wide ban on plastics as a step toward reducing the amount of recyclable material that ends up in our landfills.