When Plastic Meets Compost: Recycling at NYU

It is lunchtime at the Kimmel Center for University Life on New York University’s campus, and NYU students must maneuver carefully in the sea of people standing shoulder to shoulder. The line to order pasta started to wrap around the corner at the counter where students pour a cup of coffee. The soup and salad bars created an awkward dance because an orderly line was impossible around the circular buffets.

With these crowds, often forgotten are the overflowing trash bins in the dining hall as well. Typically, the bins are not overflowing. During peak hours, however, people dispose of their trash as quick as possible to get in and get out—sometimes not taking the time to separate their trash between recyclables and compost.

In Kimmel, as part of the Zero Waste initiative, there was one composting bin and two recycling bins at each ‘locked’ receptacle, which are bins that are connected to one another.  Signage above the receptacles indicated what type of trash goes where.

“NYU likes to baby us,” said Jada Alexander, a junior in the College of Arts and Science. She felt that recycling efforts on campus were “more explicit” and “straightforward.”

“I’m glad NYU is like that,” she added.

However, when actually faced with putting trash in the correct place in dining halls like Kimmel, Alexander will usually put all of her waste in the compost.

Her thought process is to throw away everything as quickly as possible because if she stands around trying to figure it out, she starts to feel “nervous” and doesn’t want to “look stupid” by taking the time in a “populated place” like Kimmel.

But what actually happens when people don’t take the time to separate out their compost, recyclables, and landfill trash?

“It goes to a landfill,” said Dianne Anderson, the Sustainable Resources Manager in the Office of Sustainability at NYU.

The system can handle “a little bit of contamination,” but for this system to be as effective as it can be, “it will really take everybody kind of consciously thinking ‘where does my material go?’ and putting it in a recycling container,” she said.

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.

However, the diversion rate is a “murky” statistic when evaluating the success of recycling, according to Davis Saltonstall, a Recycling Coordinator at NYU. He said that diversion rates do not take into account the potentially contaminated loads that end up in the landfill after being diverted.

Despite the diversion rate as a questionable indicator, NYU’s goal is to increase the rate to 50% by 2017. One of the initiatives to achieve this is by collocating bins. Landfill and recycling options would be right next to each other, and even connected like they are in places like Kimmel, Leonard N. Stern School of Business, and other locations.

The second way the office is trying to increase diversion is with proper signage above the bins. Signage plays a huge role in educating student about where to put their waste, according to Anderson.

“As long as the option is there, I’ll do it,” said Romaine Haffenden, a sophomore studying accounting in Stern. When he doesn’t know what bin to put his trash in, he will take a moment to look at the signs. However, if it doesn’t give him an answer, he will put his waste in the landfill bin, he said.

The hope is that improving signage will minimize confusion and answer students’ questions right away.

“You have three seconds to tell someone through a sign where things go,” said Anderson, emphasizing the importance that these signs play in diverting the waste stream.

Saltonstall and others are currently researching what signage works best to increase the diversion rate after receiving a $10,000 Green Grant to carry out the project. A Green Grant is a program in which students, faculty, and staff can propose sustainability initiatives that NYU can implement in its practices.

The research project will hopefully evolve into a small business, called Return Recycling, that universities and other institutions can use, said Saltonstall.

The team built large waste receptacles over spring break with sections for landfill, recyclables, composting, and, an often forgotten waste that can ruin recycling loads, liquids. These bins are made with bamboo, which is more sustainable, according to Saltonstall.

The bins have been located in Silverstein Hall and the Heights Alumni Lounge at NYU since the first week of April.

The bins have more visual signs that are similar to infographics that frequently circulate on the Internet, rather than signs with small images and words. On Tuesday mornings, the team and volunteers dig through the trash that has been collected in these bins to target the “trouble items,” said Saltonstall.

They are trying to figure out “what do people not understand goes into recycling,” he said. “How do we message this a little better, so we can clean up the entire system?”

After the on campus efforts to recycle and compost, the waste is picked up by a private carter company called Action Carting. Recycling is picked up Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Compost and landfill is picked up every day except Sunday.

“I could see in the future a switch in that process,” said Anderson, optimistic that one day landfill waste would be picked up fewer days than recycling.

Action Carting takes mixed recycling and separates it on a conveyor belt in an optical sorting system. The system uses infrared technology, high speed cameras, and two separate magnets—one for aluminum and one for tin. The video below explains the process in detail and goes inside the facility itself.

The compost, also picked up by Action Carting, is taken to upstate New York, according to Anderson. Organic processing facilities use windrows technology, which is an outdoor process where compost piles are covered and heated to break down naturally. Afterwards, the soil is resold to landscapers.

If NYU sends a recycling load that is contaminated with half food waste, the Office of Sustainability is notified indicating what “trouble spots” there are. The company sends photographs as well. The same goes for composting loads that are contaminated with recyclables.

The waste system is an unseen process which is often unknown to the general public. When something is thrown away, whether it is in a landfill, recycling, or composting bin, the person throwing it away does not think about what happens afterwards.

“I don’t know much about the trash process,” said Brandon Hammock, a sophomore film student in Tisch School of the Arts. In regards to recycling, people “don’t see the direct benefits of recycling,” since it is a preventative measure, said Hammock.

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.

Saltonstall shared a similar understanding of this mindset.

“People aren’t thinking about trash,” he said. “If you drink a cup of coffee, when it’s gone, ultimately, lots of students are thinking about the fastest way to get rid of it.”

Recycling should work as a conscious act, but it has become a “matter of convenience,” Saltonstall added.

When Zero Waste initiatives were first implemented last year in Kimmel, there was a learning curve and the company notified NYU multiple times informing that they would have to throw it all into the landfill, said Anderson.

“There is still a lot going out in the trash that’s recyclable,” but more education and behavior change has improved the system since last year, said Anderson. Weinstein Dining Hall, better known as Downstein to NYU students, is also one of the pilots for Zero Waste. This fall, Weinstein Food Court, Upstein for students, and Hayden Dining Hall will implement the Zero Waste program.

Alejandra Ramirez, a sophomore in Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, pointed out that there are not a lot of active education efforts, from her experiences. She notices the Public Safety emails, which educate and inform students on how to stay safe on campus, but she hasn’t noticed those types of emails about recycling, she said.

Another solution that Ramirez suggested was creating educational video classes, similar to the alcohol and sexual assault education that students are mandated to complete. She said students might be annoyed about having to do it, but it would “make people a little more aware,” which is a “beginning step.”

Education initiatives can also guarantee students are getting the correct information.

When students try to educate themselves on topics that might have different rules in different places, students are bombarded with conflicting information, said Ramirez. When this happens, students will “give up” instead of “sorting out” all the information.

Beyond education via emails, online videos, or even signage, one student learned the process and changed her behavior because of what she learned in the classroom.

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.

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 when people who want to be more environmentally friendly choose to recycle because it is the easier lifestyle change.

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.”

Saltonstall put it best: “Recycling is the baby of environmentalism.”

However, recycling education also has the “power to shift people’s mindset of resource use to a much more systemic understanding,” he said.

Recycling is the beginning on helping people start to think about other environmentally friendly practices—not recycling alone.

One thought on “When Plastic Meets Compost: Recycling at NYU

  1. I was curious about what is done with the soda six pack rings. They can be very harmful to sea life if not cut up or shredded.


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