The blue-box dilemma

The ‘uphill battle’ of recycling on campus

Initiatives like the display at the Common Ground instruct students on how to sort their recycling.
Initiatives like the display at the Common Ground instruct students on how to sort their recycling.

According to the 2005 Waste Audit, conducted by Queen’s Physical Plant Services, paper was the largest component at the University’s landfill site in Moose Creek, between Cornwall and Ottawa.
Paper takes up approximately 36 per cent of the total waste.

This may not seem like an exceptionally high number, and it is an improvement on the previous 1994 waste audit, which found that paper took up 50 per cent of total waste. But consider this—the second largest component is food, which occupies 28 per cent.

Both of these categories of waste do not belong in landfill sites. Paper can be recycled and food can be
composted. So what are they doing in our landfill? Rebecca Spaulding, the waste information co-ordinator at Physical Plant Services, divides the Queen’s population into three groups: students living in residence, students living off-campus and faculty and staff living off-campus.

She said the biggest challenge facing the recycling initiative at Queen’s is student awareness.

“Students living off-campus who come to campus daily to use the library, go to lectures, eat at the
cafeteria, etc. are the most difficult group to deal with,” Spaulding said. “This is the public aspect of the recycling program at Queen’s.” One proposal Spaulding is considering for next fiscal year is
called Hot Stamps.

“These are printed labels that are emblazoned permanently to recycling boxes on campus,” Spaulding said, explaining that a big problem with recycling on campus simply stems from the taped labels falling off and being discarded.

Campus recycling is sorted into three categories: paper, glass and plastic. There are recycling bins throughout campus that correspond to these categories. If a recyclable is placed in the incorrect
box, however, it can ruin its entire contents and become garbage.

“Sometimes it just takes one person to spoil the whole bin,” Spaulding said.

Garbage is picked up from campus every day by the Waste Management Company, whereas recycling is picked up four times a week.

Spaulding has been the waste information co-ordinator at Queen’s since 1991, and she said she has seen vast improvements in the recycling initiatives at Queen’s since she started her position.

“In the bigger picture, over a longer time frame, recycling is a work in progress.”

The ultimate goal, she said, is to stop waste altogether. “There’s not enough focus on waste reduction,” she said. “It’s not like recycling is an environmentally neutral act.”

Taylor Edington-Hryb, ArtSci ’08 and Common Ground facilities manager, said he sees mismatched
recyclables at work all the time. “When it only takes one person to ruin a whole bag [of waste], it’s an uphill battle,” he said. “You need the whole student body on board.”

Despite having a clearly labeled recycling facility, plastic is pitched in the glass bin, paper turns up in the plastic bin, and more recyclables turn up in the landfill as a result. Of all the packaging materials
at the Common Ground, only two items are not recyclable— cups, and to-go bags, whose wax linings prevent them from being recyclable.

The Common Ground serves about 1,500 customers each day. Edington-Hryb believes it’s a customer’s responsibility to take the time to separate recyclable materials and place them in the corresponding bin.

“You need to think before you throw something out,” he said. For the first time this year, as part of their training, Common Ground employees were educated about what materials behind the counter
are recyclable. This initiative was started by Edington-Hryb, who also provided proper disposal bins
for these materials. Edington-Hryb proudly displayed the recycling bins for the countless receipts the café goes through each day, which are new this year.

“There is still so much room for improvement,” he said. One suggestion Edington-Hryb said he’ll make for the managing team next year is to look into recyclable alternatives to their cups, such as the ones available at the Tea Room. “We’re working towards zero waste,” said Faye Pang, Comm ’07 and Operations Manager of the Tea Room, which has had some success in avoiding spoiled recyclabes.
However, Pang said along with the Common Ground, the Tea Room does experience spoiled bins of recycling due to incorrect sorting. “We’re all under the waste management program; unfortunately that’s also the case here,” she said. “We don’t have a garbage bin for our customers because nothing that we give them is garbage,” said Pang, adding that the staff is trained to be vigilant about making sure customers put recyclables in the proper corresponding bin.

“I think we do a pretty good job,” she said. Blake Anderson, ArtSci ’07 and AMS sustainability co-ordinator, said a viable solution for the recycling woes on campus is to unify the packaging from all the AMS services. He admits, however, that education remains the most important aspect of the recycling program at Queen’s. “Recycling at Queen’s doesn’t do any sorting, so all the sorting needs to come from Queen’s students,” Anderson said. Unified packaging could be a step in the right direction, as could biodegradable packaging, which Anderson is also looking into. But he said it’s difficult to find alternatives because they are often much more expensive than existing methods.

“Recycling is a good alternative to a landfill, but it still requires a lot of energy, resources, etc. A better
alternative is producing no waste at all.” As far as educating students goes, Anderson cites the display at the Common Ground as an example that attempts to let students know what waste goes where.
“In order to make the recycling program work, it needs to be as easy to recycle as it is to throw something [in the garbage],” Anderson said. Virginia Emery, ArtSci ’08 and co-chair of Students Taking Responsible Initiatives for a Viable Environment (STRIVE), said it’s a challenge to communicate and
engrain recycling into the student lifestyle.

Emery suggested that students take small steps to achieve a sustainable lifestyle, such as shopping second-hand. “You have to stop making excuses at some point; you do have to make an effort,” she said, adding that not carrying out environmentally sound practices will come back to bite you as our resources deplete. Michelle Burquist, ArtSci ’09 and co-chair of the Earth Centre, agreed. “We all breathe in the air, we all drink the water. So, it’s important for us to realize how our daily actions affect those things. Every time we use something without recycling it, we’re taking away from our limited fresh resources,” she said. The Earth Centre encourages students to live a sustainable lifestyle by recycling at the industrial level, and provides various products that meet the needs of the environment. “If you take toilet paper, for example, most people don’t believe that you should flush old-growth forests down the toilet, but we’re doing that without realizing it,” Berquist said.

“We want students to realize that they can recycle not only by recycling products they use, but also by buying recycled products.”

Recycling by the Numbers

Of the 36 per cent paper content found in the university’s landfill, 20 per cent came from paper towels, plates, cups and like material, which currently can’t be recycled at Queen’s.

  • Approximately 2,000 tonnes of waste from the university goes to the landfill site in Moose Creek each year.
  • Approximately 500 tonnes of waste is diverted from the landfill annually thanks to the recycling program.
  • In the first year of the university’s e-waste program, approximately 26 tonnes, or 2,281 pieces of electronic equipment were recycled.
  • On average, 110 tonnes of leaf and yard waste is composted at Queen’s every year.

—Sources: Queen’s University’s Waste Management Program Summer 2005-06; May 2005; and Waste Audit 2005

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