Thirteen recycling bins lined the recycling room in New York University’s residence hall, Carlyle Court. Most were full, and stacked on top were cardboard boxes and a few blue bags full of recyclables. The room was a feather in the hat for NYU’s green initiative. It appeared that students were taking advantage of mixed recycling and making the effort to separate their trash and bring it downstairs.
However, not everyone makes the effort to recycle trash accumulated in their room. One student only recycles when he is faced with a landfill bin and recycling bin.
“I don’t make it my problem because it doesn’t feel like my problem,” said Brandon Hammock, a sophomore film student who lives in Carlyle.
A major fallback with recycling initiatives is that people “don’t see the direct benefits of recycling” since it is a preventative measure, said Hammock. He explained an example involving medicine. If a friend is diagnosed with cancer and gets treatment, “you see the impact of it,” he said. With recycling, you don’t physically see positive benefits, since for the average person, once you throw something away, you don’t have to worry about where it goes anymore.
“I don’t know much about the trash process,” admitted Hammock, and he is likely not alone.
NYU implemented a Mixed Recycling system in 2009, which accepts all plastics, glass, metals, and paper in one bin. Since then, NYU has raised its diversion rate to 30%, which is twice that of New York City, according to NYU’s sustainability webpage. This means that 30% of the waste stream at NYU is recycled.
And indeed, NYU does have a good diversion rate, relative to the city as a whole. For the fiscal year 2014, the diversion rate was 15.4 percent, according to the 2015 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, a report on the performance of New York City’s departments from July through October 2014.
Furthermore, the city’s diversion rate has hovered around 15 percent since 2012.
At Carlyle Court, there are supposedly two options for recycling. One is to separate your trash in the recycling bins in the room and take it on the first level to the recycling room. Another is to take your recyclables to the recycling bin in the trash chute room on each floor.
However, several of the trash rooms do not have recycling bins, specifically in tower one and two (the residence hall consists of three separate towers). Signs in the trash rooms labeled “Mixed Recycling” suggested that bins should be there. In tower three, there are recycling bins in the trash rooms, albeit small alternatives compared to the full-sized bins in the recycling room.
At one point, Carlyle’s hall council advocated for recycling bins in all of the trash rooms, but there were “many hoops to jump through” in regards to purchasing bins and other logistics, according to Rachel Cantor, the President of hall council at Carlyle.
Cantor said carrying your recyclables downstairs is “not that bad,” but agreed that often the reason people don’t take the extra step is both laziness and the busy nature of college students’ lives.
Cantor herself does make the effort to carry her recyclables down to the recycling room. She noted that “the guilt” of throwing something she knows can be recycled into the trash is a huge motivator for her.
Another factor is education—knowing the impact of recycling and what can be recycled.
Sharon Attia, a sophomore in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, started recycling this semester and was inspired to do so by her Environmental Studies class.
“I am environmentally conscious, but I think when you’re taking a class and talking about [the environment] everyday, you do a double take with things you do in your life,” said Attia.
For instance, she has always had a reusable water bottle, but sometimes would buy a water bottle for convenience. Now, after taking an Environmental Studies class, she always remembers to carry it with her because “plastic is awful,” she said. Additionally, Attia is from Los Angeles and has read more articles about the droughts in California. These have made her more aware of water shortage causing her to take shorter showers when she was home.
Recycling, while originating from a good purpose and cause, can also have its downsides that get lost in the big picture. The first issue is that it is the easier lifestyle change when people want to be more environmentally friendly.
People have a mindset where they think “if I’m going to do one, I’ll do that one,” said Attia. “If I’m going to be environmentally conscious, I’m going to do the easier one that less inconveniences me.”
Secondly, initiatives to encourage recycling often aid in justifying overconsumption and waste in the first place. Modern-day recycling has given “the manufacturers of disposable items a way to essentially market overconsumption as environmentalism,” Forbes reported in 2012.
At NYU, many of the green initiatives encourage recycling waste, composting, disposing of electronic waste appropriately, and so on. While the cause is honorable at the root, there are no preventative campaigns to reduce overall waste.
Cantor said she hasn’t seen initiatives to reduce waste on campus, but she would be “super interested” to see them. “We could be taking initiative to reduce waste,” she said.
Instead, recycling, the second best option seems to prevail.