Professor Wendy Macias previously taught at a university that made recycling easy. Her office had a blue bin and a black bin, and she placed all recyclable materials in the blue bin. She said it seemed like a pretty straight forward concept.
In 2010, Macias began teaching advertising at TCU—a school that, to her, did not make recycling easy.
In her 10 years teaching at the University of Georgia, she was used to recycling. But at TCU, she rarely saw blue recycling bins. She did not see waste being sorted for recycling. She asked TCU Physical Plant how the system works, and she said her questions were not well received.
For nearly 30 years, TCU has partnered with Waste Management in recycling and disposal efforts. The University uses the “single-stream” recycling method, which has its pros and cons.
Using the single-stream method, TCU collects all waste, including recyclable materials, and puts it in the same bins. The trash is then thrown into 11 tan recycling dumpsters dispersed across campus.
Waste Management vehicles then transport the waste to a recycling center in Arlington, where the waste is sorted into categories of recyclable materials and materials due for the landfill.
The idea behind this method is that academic buildings primarily produce paper waste, with a few food and beverage containers mixed in. These items are discarded during the sorting process.
Pros of single-stream
In 2008, Popular Mechanics published an article outlining the benefits of the single-stream method. The primary benefit is convenience.
Individuals, households and businesses do not have to sort their waste into different bins. Oftentimes, people do not recycle correctly because they do not pay attention to recycling restrictions on certain types of metal, plastic, paper and glass. The single-stream method avoids this confusion.
The article explained that after the city of Madison, Wisconsin, switched from sorting to single-stream in 2005, the recycling rate increased by 25 percent.
Popular Mechanics also said the single-stream method is budget friendly. Recycling companies that sort have to allot close to 60 percent of their budget for trucks that collect recycling, whether gathering from household trash bins or commercial dumpsters. By emptying all waste into one non-compartmentalized truck, transportation costs are cut down.
Keith Whitworth, who teaches courses on sustainability, said he thinks of TCU recycling as three E’s: economical, efficient and educational.
First, Whitworth said placing all waste into the existing, non-divided containers across campus is cost effective for the university. TCU does not have to purchase more containers or label which containers accept which items.
The single-stream method is also efficient, Whitworth said, for the trash company and for TCU housekeepers. Waste Management can haul all TCU recycling in one truck.
As for TCU housekeepers, they only have to make one decision: green trash dumpster or tan recycling dumpster. Waste bags from food service areas or restrooms go to the trash dumpster, while almost all other bags from academic buildings should be put in the recycling dumpster.
Even greater than the cost of separate bins, Robert Sulak, director of grounds maintenance and recycling for the TCU Physical Plant, said manpower would be insufficient for sorting methods.
“We always have people coming in and saying we could do recycling better, but who’s going to do that? It requires manpower and trucks and sorting,” Sulak said.
Whitworth said his third E, education, is one area that needs improvement. TCU needs to convey that the all-in-one bins are later sorted and also convey the overall importance of a recycling mentality.
As part of Whitworth’s sustainability courses, he maintains the website sustainability.tcu.edu to educate site visitors about TCU’s recycling efforts. The site offers statistics, such as how TCU saves $30,000 each year because Waste Management charges less for emptying recycling dumpsters than trash dumpsters.
In addition to the website, Whitworth is brainstorming how else to increase awareness about recycling on campus. He is designing a small round decal that could potentially be placed on all campus trash bins. It would offer a simple message like “You toss, we sort” to communicate that the waste is recycled and that TCU does prioritize recycling efforts.
Though Whitworth explained the efficiency and economic justifications for TCU using the single-stream approach, he acknowledged the downsides: a perception that the University does not recycle and misuse of recycling containers because of inadequate awareness.
Cons of single-stream
Across University Drive, in Moudy South, Macias was less inclined to defend TCU’s handle on the single-stream approach.
“Recycling is such an ‘unhabit’ at TCU,” she said. “There is not a culture of recycling.”
Macias said she peeks inside dumpsters from time to time to see if they are being used properly. She finds that often they are not. In trash dumpsters intended for non-recyclable, contaminated items, she has seen cardboard boxes and stacks of newspapers.
She also periodically watches the dumpsters from a third-floor window outside her office, and she has seen housekeepers putting blue recycling bags into the trash dumpsters.
After observing these poor recycling habits, Macias has placed a recycling container outside of her office, labeled for anyone to use. She also carries the bag out to the recycling dumpster when it fills about once per week. She even accepts used batteries, which have specific suggested methods for disposal.
Besides the academic side of campus, Macias mentioned a recycling problem at Amon G. Carter Stadium and the surrounding tailgating areas. She is glad that, unlike the rest of campus, much of the football area practices the “one-for-one method” in which every trash bin has a cardboard Waste Management recycling bin next to it. This allows the waste holder to make a decision of how to dispose of items.
The issue, however, is that much of the waste is improperly mixed. Sulak said, with tens of thousands of people, it turns out that food gets mixed in with the recyclable materials, and the recycling bag becomes contaminated. Then, the recycling bags go into the trash.
“When you have food and 50,000 people in the stadium, we don’t have time to sort through that [for bags that maybe could be recycled],” Sulak said.
It’s a bad combination of lots of people with lots of bottles and cans, in the same vicinity of lots of food and other non-recyclables, in what Macias described as a non-recycling culture.
Similar challenges hit the residential buildings as well. Residence halls utilize varying recycling methods, but in general, the halls have designated recycling bins that housekeepers or residents carry to the tan dumpsters outside the buildings.
There is no recycling, however, for trash bins located outside. Waste put in bins near entrances to buildings is destined for the trash dumpsters. Sulak said too many food and drink products are placed in these bins for them to be recyclable.
Despite confusion about the system, TCU reports surprisingly high numbers when it comes to recycling. According to a document the Physical Plant provides for recycling inquiries, 75 percent of TCU paper is recycled. The remaining 25 percent not recycled primarily comes from residence halls, where it gets contaminated with other waste.
According to Whitworth’s TCU sustainability website, about half as much waste is recycled as is taken to landfills. The single-stream approach generates about 218 yards of recycling per week, while TCU sends 384 yards to the landfill each week.
How to improve
At the current time, no major recycling improvements are underway. Both Macias and Sulak said if TCU wants to create really successful recycling efforts it would need someone in charge of sustainability and perhaps a facility.
Sulak said at this time there is absolutely not the manpower for TCU to be able to divide or sort recycling. He said single-stream is the only possible method, given the number of workers employed.
To improve the perception, awareness and success of recycling on campus, it’s going to take everyone getting on board, he said, being mindful of how they dispose of their waste.
“What I’ve found over the years is that recycling works when everyone is involved,” Sulak said. “It’s not someone else coming in and doing it for you. It requires everyone’s participation.”
Recycling is an environmental concern but also a reflection of the university, and Macias said that perception is a reason change is required.
“TCU has got to figure out a way to fix this problem because it looks bad,” Macias said.
GreenReportCard.org measures sustainable efforts at colleges nationwide. It gives schools a letter grade in categories such as food and recycling, green building, and climate change and energy.
In comparing TCU’s 2011 report card with those of other small private Texas universities, TCU fell in the middle with an overall grade of B-. Southern Methodist University and Baylor University both received an A in the food and recycling category while TCU received a C.
TCU outdoes other universities in many polls, like continually being named a top business school, a great place to work, having “Top 100” professors and one of the best social scenes. Recycling, however, is not known to be exemplary.
Big changes may come over time. But for now, Whitworth summarized how TCU community members should recycle. He said to place recyclable materials in tan dumpsters. If not the tan dumpsters, place them in designated recycling bins in residential buildings or bins inside academic buildings. Put food items in outdoor trash bins or green dumpsters.