Recycling struggles to self-sustain
Despite having recycled 525 tons of paper, plastics, cans, cardboard, glass and metals last year, the USU Recycling Center does not make enough money to be self-sustaining, a fact recycling coordinator Nate Schwartz is trying to change with re-evaluating strategies like RecycleMania.
The annual student-led competition held every spring between on-campus housing to see who can recycle the most may not continue if it is not making a difference, Schwartz said.
“There’s still quite a bit that goes to the landfill,” Schwartz said. “If you look in the garbage cans around campus you’ll see paper sitting in there, you’ll see aluminum cans, you’ll see plastic bottles.”
About the size of a small community recycling operation, USU’s center still depends on campus subsidies to operate, Schwartz said. The campus recycling center makes money from the sale of compacted bales of recyclable material collected in bins around campus.
“The opportunity cost may be ‘Hey, we don’t make money, but we keep a lot out of the landfill that otherwise would go to the landfill,’” Schwartz said.
The university has to pay to send garbage to the landfill, Schwartz said.
Schwartz said it is fairly common for a university recycling center to be subsidized by its school in order to keep it from going out of business.
“You can go out of business really quick in recycling if you aren’t careful,” Schwartz said. “If you try to take on too much and there are not markets for stuff, you can sink really quick.”
Since taking the job of recycling coordinator in June, Schwartz has been looking for ways to increase the number of recyclables the center collects and eventually make the center self-sufficient.
“I come from the business side of recycling,” said Schwartz, who holds a degree in business administration and has worked in recycling for 17 years. “That’s why I have a different perspective.”
It may take a more direct approach to educate people on what can be recycled, Schwartz said.
In a garbage audit, a group of students collects the contents of garbage cans in a specified area for several weeks then sorts through them to see how much of the waste is actually recyclable.
They then present their findings to the department where the garbage cans are located and work on strategies to make sure less recyclables are thrown away.
A typical recyclable goes through many hands before it is actually recycled. For example, a plastic bottle gets tossed in one of the blue containers on campus. Later in the day, a collection crew comes and empties the contents of the bin into other bins, puts them on the back of a truck and drives to the USU Recycling Center.
Once the plastics bin is filled with various collected items from campus, it will be taken inside and lifted above a conveyor belt where items are pulled down by rake and sorted by workers into large cardboard boxes according to type.
Recycling worker Cindy Curtis said the hardest part of her job is sorting out the garbage. In her nearly two years working at the center, she said she has seen small improvement in less garbage being tossed in recycling bins.
Sorting garbage from recyclable products takes the most time and is one of the center’s major costs, according to Matt Wallin, a worker at the center.
“It is a lot of just kind of sorting what is and isn’t recyclable,” Wallin said. “It makes a difference when people know what goes where and are more educated.”
Though most items from the recycling bin make it to the sorting box, occasionally they are too good for workers to pass up. A picture of a sheep staring head-on, a plastic Halloween witch’s cauldron and two cardboard cutouts of leprechauns adorn the recycling center’s shelves.
“There’s been a saxophone once, a mannequin head, there’s been money sometimes,” Wallin said as he waved his arm at the collection of objects displayed on the shelves along the walls of the recycling center.
With a box filled, the contents are dumped into a baler, squeezed together into a cube, wrapped and placed in a large overseas container outside with others of its type. It will sit there until the container is filled with 30 to 40 bales of the same type and then will be sold to the highest bidder.
The center depends on the market for recycled goods, much of which is in China, Schwartz said.
“It’s very tough to make money recycling,” he said.
The center sells bales of cardboard, white paper and magazines to companies who sell them to other recycling centers. When Schwartz took the job last year, he added a more profitable category of mixed paper called total office product. Newspapers and paperboard are sold to a company in Hyrum that uses them for housing insulation and glass bottles go to a company in Smithfield.12
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