Richards: Questioning the placement of new waste and recycling bins

Jason Richards, Staff Columnist

If you’ve attended the first few classes of the semester this past week at Case Western Reserve University—which you hopefully have—you’ve probably noticed a handful of the 1,200 new trash and recycling combination bins placed throughout the campus’s academic and residential buildings. If you live in the Village at 115th, you also may have noticed your beloved tiny kitchen trash can was replaced with bulky, space-consuming conjoined bins labeled “Mixed Recycling” on one side and “Waste” on the other.

The new bins are part of an initiative on campus to consolidate recycling and traditional waste into one uniformly used bin. Their installation occurred silently while students were on winter break, and was spurred by a $50,000 grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and an undisclosed amount of additional funding from CWRU’s own Campus Planning and Facilities Management division. Erin Kollar, assistant director of sustainability and eight-year member of the Sustainable CWRU team, explained some of the motivation behind the initiative.

Beyond creating a uniform system of waste and recycling throughout campus, Kollar explained “that as somebody goes to approach a waste bin, hav[ing] the option to both recycle or throw things in the landfill bin is key to making sure we’re having good recycling numbers and eliminating any sort of contamination.”

This logic makes sense in areas where a lot of students travel—main campus buildings, entryways and larger common areas. But in living spaces, where only a handful of students reside and have limited space, these new bins seem to contribute little to the overall goals, and instead take up space without being separable.

In residential housing, these bins popped up in suites upon return from winter break, replacing the small, space-friendly kitchen trash and recycling bins.

Some students, such as third-year Jacob Engelbrecht, who lives in the Village with three other roommates, find the bins intrusive to their suite. 

“From an upperclassmen’s perspective, I don’t see how these new bins change our recycling habits in suite living,” he said. “I find the cans themselves to be too large, and I don’t think we produce enough waste or recycling for these bins to be beneficial.”

I have to agree. You wouldn’t put your curbside trash or recycling can in your kitchen if you can hide away a smaller bin under a counter or have it tucked away neatly in the corner. Though not many of us upperclassmen have interior suite design high on the list of priorities, a lot of students—including myself—do have a sense of pride in our living space and like to keep it clean and clutter-free. These bins are a step in the wrong direction for suite living.

Beyond the mild intrusiveness of larger cans in small living quarters, it’s important to address the elephant in the room: where are the replaced trash and recycling bins going to go? Their fate remains uncertain; “For now, we are taking them back to our facilities warehouse where they are being cleaned, stored and counted, and then they will be repurposed on campus if we find places where we need to add infrastructure, or they will be either recycled or donated depending on the market,” Kollar said.

Despite the uncertainty of the old bins’ future, the new uniform bins may help increase recycling behaviors, according to Kollar. While I believe in the methodology of introducing consistency in campus recycling, the placement of these bins in living spaces brings question to their necessity in areas with a low volume of both trash and recycling.

Like Jacob and I, many support the movement toward improving uniform recycling behaviors around campus, as it eradicates excess bins in areas with large disposal volumes and eradicates confusion with different bin sizes and labels. Replacing the trash cans in suite living does little for these goals.

Kollar noted that educating the campus on the right mixed recycling behaviors is a high-priority goal for campus sustainability. The new receptacles have attached pictures which inform people of what exactly can be recycled with the recent movement to mixed—or single-stream—recycling on campus.

“Following national trends and opportunities for us to recycle regionally, we’ve consolidated the PMG [plastic, metal and glass] stream and the paper stream in most instances across campus, so now it is just mixed recycling,” said Kollar. 

Director of Sustainability Stephanie Corbett supported Kollar’s comments on how educating students on proper recycling methods and converting to single-stream recycling can help improve sustainability goals and “dramatically increase what we’re sending to the recycling center … that’s our hope and that’s our number one goal: to recycle more.” 

That being said, both directors stressed the importance of campus feedback during this process. They understood that such a change will have some “growing pains,” but Kollar especially noted the importance of “making the best decisions for the campus in terms of reducing our footprint and [continuing] to support our students as they pursue their education.”

Overall, the new bins help reach a number of goals toward a greener campus, but raise the question of necessity in some residential spaces. As stated, the initiative is in its infant stages. As the new bins continue to disseminate to more appropriate and needed locations on campus, the Office of Sustainability is open for feedback and suggestions on these bins and any other campus matters relating to sustainability.

Jason Richards is a third-year computer science major. He enjoys programming, biking and spending his money on Chipotle.