Features  Recycling is a gateway drug

Alison Withers explores how it’s the first dose when it comes to campus sustainability

It’s late on a Sunday night in McLennan Library, during midterm crunch season. The garbage and recycling bins in the basement are overflowing with evidence of students’ cram session dinners: a Jenga tower of pizza boxes, sushi trays, coffee cups, and other fast-food remains.

Dan Shiner, a co-founder of the TEVA Recycling initiative, eyed the stack nervously. “Everything in that recycling bin is probably going to the garbage, and I can tell you why,” he said. He’s referring to paper, glass bottles, plastic cups, newspapers – all items stamped with a recycling logo. He explains that unlike municipal recycling – which offers a carte blanche to put anything and everything in the green bin you have in your apartment – McGill has a blend of rules and contracts that makes recycling a different exercise altogether. For the past 10 months, Shiner and a small, dedicated team of management undergrads – Emily Tiechman and Ryan Borenstein – have been designing tools to mitigate the issue.

“When I see an overflowing bin, it reminds me of an overflowing world,” Shiner said. “The reason I recycle is because I’m nervous about where we’re going to put all our stuff.”

Armed with a colourful education campaign, their pilot project in McLennan Library (officially the Humanities and Social Sciences Library) could, if successful, divert large amounts of recyclable products from landfills. Beginning today, a series of informative posters and nine mega-bins will replace stand-alone garbage bins and the misused recycling bins throughout the study area.

A quick survey of administrative opinions at McGill gives the sense that the University was waiting for this godsend of a project to land on their doorstep, since it addressed a long-standing problem on campus.

In the past five years, McGill made considerable investments to installing indoor and outdoor heavy-duty bins for recycling, but nobody was instructing students on the specifics of how to use them.

“They came up with ideas about how to promote visibility and awareness [about recycling],” commented Jim Nicell, Associate Vice-Principal (University Services), of the student-led TEVA project.

“It’s a great example of a synergy [between students and the administration],” he added. With McGill Libraries backing it, the project’s effectiveness could signal its introduction to all campus libraries.

But eco-oriented students on campus probably didn’t catch wind of this initiative until a few weeks ago, when Shiner and his team started advertising their project launch.

Jonathan Glencross, Sustainable McGill coordinator, was impressed by the group’s ability to isolate a specific problem on campus and craft a solution to address it. “It was based on a campus need, which is good,” he said. “Lots of campus groups perceive a global need and try to rubber stamp it locally.”

There are three large misunderstandings about recycling on campus. The first misconception is that the University gets the City to pick up its waste. In fact, McGill, a small city of 238 buildings, like any large institution, contracts its waste disposal to a private waste collector. Embedded in that contract is a finicky set of rules that qualify what counts as recyclable goods.

“People are looking for a universal principle of what can and can’t be recycled, but that doesn’t exist,” Shiner explained. “You have to learn new rules on campus, or anywhere you go.”

Since recycling programs are municipally governed, every time you move you’re required to conform to local conditions and provincial guidelines; city-to-city consistency is nearly impossible and impractical.

Many haven’t adapted to McGill’s recycling do’s and don’ts. The second misunderstanding is just that: many people don’t know what can or can’t be recycled. This means that a lot of well-intending people are polluting McGill’s system. Contaminated recycling bins have been lowering the tally of waste that gets converted into new materials; dropping the wrong item in the wrong bin could easily banish its entire contents to the landfill. McGill channels its waste into three streams – clean paper, plastic-metal-glass, and trash – and contamination between these streams is ironically high in libraries, an area where food and drink aren’t allowed.

Emotions have flared in the past when students noticed custodial staff throwing recycling bin contents in the garbage. The anger was misdirected, however. It’s not in the job description of either McGill staff or waste collection staff to straighten out people’s disposal errors.

“We’ve seen many instances where the contamination is so high that the person would be irresponsible to put it with the recyclables,” said Nicell.

Putting things in the right bins has an economic value that goes beyond their ability to be recycled, as McGill pays a lower fee to the contractor for high-value recyclable goods – like clean paper and newsprint.

Dennis Fortune, University Services Sustainability Director, confirmed that McGill simply didn’t, and probably wouldn’t, have the capacity to sort its own recycling bins. “We don’t have the facility,” he said. “The best thing is to take it to a transfer station where they’re doing the sorting.”

The root of the contamination issue is attributed to the third unfortunate unknown about recycling on campus: if you don’t know which bin to drop it in, throw it in the garbage. The roster of non-recyclables includes used pizza boxes, coffee cups and lids, milk cartons, waxed paper, plastic cutlery, Styrofoam cups or trays, and Iced Cappuccino cups. 
“Some people use [recycling] as a personal statement about what should be recycled,” Nicell said. Let’s say you’re standing there with your used coffee cup, made of paper and plastic, and because you believe it ought to be recycled, you drop it in the paper bin. That’s a bad move.  
“If everyone knew where coffee cups and lids went – both in the garbage – recycling would be a hell of a lot better,” Shiner said.

Recycling is good for the environment, but it’s largely a feel-good action. Ask anyone with a strong science or environmental background, and they’ll tell you that recycling is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to initiatives to create sustainability.

“When I say the word ‘sustainability,’ it’s incredible the amount of people who start talking to me about recycling paper,” said Glencross. “I’m talking about the ability for our entire species to continue over the next hundred years and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s great that you recycle!’”

 Recycling is like a gateway drug, Glencross told me. Once you understand the process of recycling – and how much energy and pollution are created in recycling materials – you start reducing and reusing more; recycling is the third step in a whole series. “Recycling is just diverting waste. It’s the lesser of two evils,” he said.

An obvious starting point for waste reduction could be our paper output. Last year alone, McGill estimated it printed some 150-million odd pages, accounting for around 60 per cent of its waste stream. Once you wrap your head around the magnitude of that number, consider the mismatch in our recycle rates: as of September, only 38 per cent of McGill’s waste is being diverted as recyclable goods according to its audits, falling short of the 65 per cent provincial target.

 “I tell my students [that] your eye shouldn’t be on your recycle rate. The emphasis has to be on reduce, not recycle,” said Nicell, who doubles as a civil engineering professor and has taught solid waste management.

Glencross, who’s the green force behind projects like the Food Systems project and the new Sustainability Fund, had some suggestions for putting sustainable goals into operation. McGill has a lot more information on its waste audits than ever before, and should continue to publish the data publicly. Making waste audits or recycling faculty- or building-specific on a manageable scale would also sensitize people to their waste habits. “It’s kinda like a diet, where if you don’t have a scale, how can you lose the weight,” Glencross said, adding that allowing people to monitor their progress could be an effective strategy.

Part of this strategy may be realized under a new sustainability policy, which is set to surpass the less-effective environmental policy.

“Our objective is to make sustainability a reflex, not an afterthought,” explained Nicell, “It will only be embodied if people are doing the rethinking and reducing.”

Nicell and his team are talking about a full-scale cultural move toward sustainability at McGill, which will be a tough project to say the least. Part of educating McGill about proper recycling will be undoing certain previous “knowledge” about trendy or mainstream “sustainable practices” that are in fact detrimental. The social pressure to be an eco-conscious citizen and to do one’s part by recycling now needs to come with a specific, localized knowledge about how each system works. Ignorance about these issues isn’t helping anyone.