The importance of communication in recycling

Salsabeel Salem, Contributing Writer

Reduce, reuse, recycle—we’ve all chanted this phrase in elementary school or during a sporadic environmentalist push for sustainability. But to embody this three-word saying everytime we approach the green, black and blue bins in Tinkham Veale University Center is much easier said than done. In a world infested with infinite types of polymers and ever-changing regulations, detangling what can and can’t be recycled is becoming increasingly important to establishing greener habits.

One of the largest barriers preventing people from accurately disposing of their waste is poorly-designed recycling signs. With too many icons and flashy colors, poor signage confuses the populace, overwhelming them with excess information that can’t be processed in a succinct timespan. To correct this error, the sustainability industry has been creating simpler signage with minimal words and few images. 

I met with Case Western Reserve University’s Office of Sustainability to discuss CWRU’s recycling habits, and Director of Energy, Sustainability and the University Farm Stephanie Corbett confirmed this trend. Corbett relayed that processing the recycled materials is easy; however, informing people on what can and can’t be recycled is hard. With over 100 buildings across campus, there is no adequate strategy to ensure all bins are adequately labeled and damaged signs get replaced. Without effective and creative advertising, it becomes increasingly common for people to make mistakes.

Though it’s easy to blame the average person for not reading recycling signs closely enough, it’s hard to stay up-to-date when the industry keeps changing its rules, especially concerning plastics. Different types of plastics used to be marked with a number corresponding to a recycling method. People used these numbers for years, until suddenly they couldn’t. The industry changed its mind, moving from sorting plastics by composition to the shape of the container. However, many people still relied on the numbers, even though some numbers were deemed unrecyclable. This shift, though well-intentioned, muddied the way people decided what could and couldn’t be recycled.

In part, changing rules and regulations reflects the industry’s attempt at getting better at recycling. At the meeting with the Office of Sustainability, Corbett talked about how recycling focuses on the recyclables’ quality rather than quantity. Smaller items—such as plastic cutlery and Ziploc bags—are considered too small to justify going through the effort of recycling, so they are thus regarded as non-recyclable. However, larger containers—such as plastic bottles and shampoo containers—are recyclable. Because the rules are built to maximize how much we can recycle given our current resources, what may have been recyclable last year might not be anymore.

These ever-changing regulations can distort our views of what can be recycled. Because communication is a two-way street, it’s partially the individual’s responsibility to seek out up-to-date information about what they can or can’t recycle. In fact, students are the primary source of waste on campus—each student produces an average of 640 pounds of solid waste every year.  To combat this on campus, organizations such as the Student Sustainability Council work to inform the student body on ways to recycle effectively. The Office of Sustainability’s website also breaks down what goods are accepted by category. However, these resources will go to waste if we don’t actively seek the information needed to make informed decisions as a student body.

In a busy world with tight schedules and deadlines, streamlining communication is essential to ensure that waste is being properly sorted. People don’t spend more than 30 seconds deliberating which bin their container goes in, so it’s important that they get clear instructions in that time. Trends such as simple signage attempt to do this, compensating for once-confusing attempts to sort materials. Bridging the communication gap is much easier said than done. However, working towards closing it can help increase the amount of recycled goods on campus, creating a greener CWRU.