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.

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Recycling Diversion Rate at NYU is Twice as Good as NYC, But There’s Room for Improvement

nyu carlyle recycling room

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.

 

NYU Students Protest in Library Against Workers’ Rights Violations on NYU Abu Dhabi Campus

Around 20 or so New York University students organized a sit-in protest in their library to protest what they describe as construction workers’ rights violations on NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. The protest lasted around 30 minutes on Monday afternoon.

The chant “no justice, no peace” echoed throughout the library’s 12 floors. Students peered up at the echoing, unseen voices from the ground level. Others went up to see what the noise was about. One student left the protest area, but voiced his support saying “keep on fighting.”

The NYU Abu Dhabi Justice Coalition sent an email to Al Bloom, the Vice Chancellor of Abu Dhabi, on Feb. 17 asking for a meeting with administration.

Bloom’s response on March 12 was a three paragraph email saying “we’re working on it, hang tight,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, NYU law student involved in the Law Students for Economic Justice, one of the several clubs involved with the coalition.

Bloom’s email says the allegations in the Human Rights Watch report in February 2015 are “not new developments,” and with the construction of the campus complete, “we continue to build  upon our successful track record with our operational workers to ensure that they are treated in accordance with our labor standards and the values of our community.”

The coalition’s annotated version of the email can be seen here.

The first Human Rights Watch report on NYU Abu Dhabi working conditions was in 2009. Then came the New York Times’ report and the Guardian’s report. These reports detail working conditions in which workers must pay recruitment fees that add up to a year’s salary, little to no healthcare, withholding their passports, and harassment.

There is “absolutely no discussion” as to what being a ‘Global Network University’ means “politically and socially,” said Sharma Pokharel. This cause resonates personally for Sharma Pokharel because she is from Nepal, and many of the campus construction workers were South Asian.

NYU’s administrators say they are an academic community, but “the way they act makes it seem more like a hierarchy,” she added.

The response from Bloom sparked the library protest where protesters asked for an hour long meeting that would included NYU President John Sexton and Martin Lipton, Chair of NYU Board of Trustees, in addition to Bloom.

The protesters said they were told nobody was in the office because of the holidays.

Passover and Easter were over the weekend, but students were confused as to why nobody would be in the office to speak with them on a Monday afternoon.

“What’s the holiday today, Monday?” said Leo Gertner, second year law student at NYU. A “’private university in the public service’ should be less tone deaf to what public service means and, at the very least, this means respecting workers’ rights,” he said.

The running joke among coalition members is that they must contact the secretary of the secretary of John Sexton to get a meeting scheduled. Robert Ascherman said he has been “trying to speak with [John Sexton] for three years.” Asherman is an undergraduate in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and member of the Student Labor Action Movement at NYU.

NYU spokesman John Beckman wrote in an email that “Nardello & Co., an international investigation firm, was appointed to independently evaluate these allegations. We await their findings and will have more to say at that time.”

Some claim there is a conflict of interest with the Board of Trustees and the company.

One of the NYU Board of Trustee members, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, has connections with the Abu Dhabi’s government-run Mubadala Development Company, responsible for building the campus, said a New York Times Dealbook column. In addition, Al Mubarak has an affiliation with Tamkeen, the Abu Dhabi agency who hired Nardello & Co., according to students a part of the coalition as well as a Buzzfeed report.

Despite multiple news articles regarding the troubling workers’ conditions, NYU administration awaits findings from the investigation firm.

The investigation’s results were supposed to be published by the end of 2014, according to a press release on NYU Abu Dhabi’s website last June. Four months into 2015, there are still no results. In mid-March this year, Nardello & Co., said the report would be completed in about a month, according to a New York Times report.

Outside the library on Monday, there was a member of the coalition who called on people to sign NYU Abu Dhabi Justice Coalition’s latest petition, which was launched in March and has over 600 supporters as of April 7.

The petition which members of the coalition have sent to the administration, calls to “justly compensate the NYUAD construction workers who were jailed and deported” after striking, recognize their “right to strike,” “publically disclose” the labor standards code, among other requests.

“[NYU] needs to be held accountable,” said Kristina Bogas, an undergraduate student in the College of Arts and Science at NYU. She first became aware of the abuses after spending five months on the Abu Dhabi campus in fall 2013 and reading the Guardian’s report in late 2013.

After returning to the New York campus, Bogas helped to revive the coalition and launch their first petition last May. Since then, attempting to schedule meetings with administration has been repeatedly stalled, according to the protesters.

Construction has been completed on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus since last spring, but NYU should not get the “jail out of free card” just because construction is finished, said Bogas.

While the work these students have done is ongoing, a recent development has directly affected NYU professor Andrew Ross, who has been barred from traveling to the U.A.E. Ross has been outspoken about the migrant labor workers’ conditions and had intended to do research there over spring break.

The alleged workers’ rights violations at Abu Dhabi is one of many campaigns students and faculty care about, but at the root of the issue is accessibility to the administrators.

“If this administration wants to be accessible, they would place themselves on the first floor of the [NYU Kimmel Center for University Life] or [Elmer Holmes Bobst Library]” instead of the 11th and 12th floors of the library, said Ascherman.

Here is The Guardian’s report on NYU’s sit-in.