Over the past semester, your waste disposal habits have been of acute importance to students in Wellesley’s environmental studies capstone class (ES300). The course, titled Environmental Decision-Making, focuses on a different contemporary environmental issue each year. Students are tasked with performing research on the local implications of global issues and working together to develop solutions for the community. This year, the focus was recycling. Wellesley’s Office of Sustainability charged the class with providing recommendations to improve recycling rates on campus.
The topic is a timely one. On April 19, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Tourism announced that the country would be further expanding its bans on foreign waste imports. China made headlines in 2017 when it rocked the global recycling industry by announcing a new ban on 24 categories of scrap and waste, citing human health and environmental concerns. Now, that number has more than doubled.
For decades, China had been the top destination for recyclables, importing waste from a number of foreign nations to supply its manufacturing boom. The United States was among China’s chief suppliers, selling roughly one-sixth of all its recycled materials to the country.
These recent developments have left the United States scrambling to adapt; recyclables have plummeted in value and piled up at processing centers throughout the country. Across the board, American recycling companies are reconsidering their waste collection processes and fees and are looking for ways to improve the quality of their streams — categories of materials that are processed together — and restructure their global supply chains.
Wellesley College is among the many U.S. institutions that are currently feeling the effects of these new policies at the companies they outsource to. Wellesley collects about 175 tons of recycling annually, divided into two streams: mixed paper/cardboard and commingled. Until recently, the college sent all of its recycling to the town of Wellesley’s Recycling & Disposal Facility (RDF), but the facility has now changed its fee structure, increasing the cost of recycling glass from $10 to $125 per ton, and has stopped accepting commingled lots. As a result, the College has started sending its recycled materials to Covanta in Holliston, MA as a temporary solution.
As Wellesley faces new motivations to restructure its recycling program and maximize efficiency, the ES300 class has identified areas of priority and potential growth in Wellesley’s current system by examining the life cycles of recycled goods and observing recycling behavior on campus.
Many students welcomed the opportunity. Maggie Mead ’18 emphasized the importance of the project within the wider framework of environmental sustainability.
“I think recycling is an element of sustainability that often feels small or futile—especially given that top-down policies to address sustainability concerns are not being made on the scale that they need to be—but Wellesley as a whole does produce a huge amount of waste so it is something we need to thinking about,” she said.
Olivia Joslin ’18 added that re-thinking something like recycling — a topic many students don’t often think about critically — was particularly engaging.
“As students, I think it’s easy focus to go about our lives at Wellesley and not question what may be going on behind the scenes or how we can play a role in optimizing the less-visible parts of campus life,” she said.
In the early phases of their project, ES300 students determined that approximately 323 tons of recyclables are unnecessarily disposed of as trash at Wellesley. With this in mind, the students developed a number of experiments in which they temporarily implemented different behavior- and infrastructure-based recycling systems in academic and residential buildings across campus, focusing their attention on what was most effective in increasing recycling quality and quantity.
The experiments, which took place over several months, gave the ES300 class new insights into the recycling habits and preferences of Wellesley’s student body. The group found that getting students to take recycling pledges and posting signs encouraging recycling weren’t necessarily the most effective tactics. Rather, they concluded that the best way to ensure that more students recycle is to provide better information about what can and can’t be recycled. In terms of infrastructure, their research showed that single-stream recycling — which is more expensive for the college but has often been shown to net more recyclables at other institutions — did not actually improve overall levels of recycling at Wellesley. In fact, the students found that adding more streams actually led to the greatest result. The amounts of incorrect recycling decreased and overall recycling increased when more specialized bins with clearly labeled lids were introduced.
The students’ final recommendations to Wellesley are to implement four, rather than two, streams of recycling with specialized lids; to make recycling bin areas consistent and uniform across campus; to place informational signage in those recycling areas; to place signs around campus with directions on where students can find recycling bins and to create a website where students can also access this information. In terms of where these recycled materials should eventually go, the students determined that Wellesley’s best option is to send its recyclables to the RDF.
Though ES300’s recommendations are largely concerned with administrative policies, Wellesley students can play an important role in improving recycling on campus. Mead noted that students led the charge for recycling on campus long before the College enacted institutional policies, adding that Eco-Reps — elected members of House Council who serve as liaisons between Residential Life and the Office of Sustainability — have facilitated student recycling in residence halls for decades.
“As students, we need to be talking more about how to properly recycle as well as how we can change what we buy,” Mead said. “Whether it’s through student leaders or organizations, students have a role in improving recycling for sure—but it has to be met by action by the college itself.”
The students reported that small recycling decisions can have a major impact.
“Contamination of recycling bins, otherwise known as any food or liquid in the recycling bin, can actually result in the entire bag of recycling ending up in the dump,” Joslin said. “Rinse your containers and don’t try and recycle oily pizza boxes.”
Mead echoed Joslin’s point, adding that recycling is not always about quantity.
“I think something that a lot of us learned was that if you don’t know if something can be recycled or not, you’re actually better off just throwing it out rather than risk contaminating all of the recyclables in a bin,” Mead said. “Obviously, if this question is coming up a lot, do try to get educated on what things you use a lot can or cannot be recycled.”
Clearly, recycling — and doing so properly — is of critical importance at Wellesley and beyond, but it’s also not a stand-alone solution to the longer-term problem of excess waste.
“Most material can only be downcycled: for example, you can’t recycle newspaper into a new, clean sheet of paper. Eventually, those things can only go into the trash instead of being recycled again,” said Lorrie He ’18, another student in ES300. “So while recycling is helpful, it would be better if we could avoid having to throw anything away at all—that’s the idea of reducing your waste generation in the first place.”
Mead agreed, adding that Wellesley’s overall sustainability profile, beyond just recycling, is worthy of consideration.
“I would have loved to spend even more time focusing on reducing the total amount of materials we bring onto campus and doing a complete, systematic analysis of the college’s purchasing practices, but perhaps that’ll be taken up by a future class,” she said.
The ES300 students’ full report will be available on the environmental studies program’s website at the end of this semester.