NSights Blog

Recycling on campus: What to do and what not to do

A few more recycling "R's" to consider with Earth Day looming

It's coming up to Earth Day and people are thinking about what they can do to live more sustainably. This is great, and I'm here to offer some thoughts specifically on recycling.

I'm going to present my bias right up front. I don't think you should recycle. There, I said it. Now, let me explain.

Recycling is not "good" for the environment. It is, at best, "less bad" than landfilling. Most materials you put in the common recycling bins, including glass and plastic, do not come back as similar materials. The exception is metals, which are easy to recover from the waste stream, very valuable and do not degrade in the recycling process. Plastics commonly come back as low-grade products, a process referred to as "downcycling" (or the more phonetically fun "de-cycling") and these products themselves are not recyclable. So, it's really just one more step before the landfill.

So, what should we do? Let's take the old adage "reduce, reuse, recycle ..."

I'm going to add a few to that.

Let's try:

Rethink - think about what you are doing before accepting a one-use container or something similar.

Refuse - just say no. Don't buy products that are packaged in too much useless material.

Reduce - use less. Sometimes less really is more.

Reuse - this one people are doing, I see lots of reusable water bottles, coffee mugs, utensils, all kinds of things on campus. Get something durable and keep reusing it. It will save money and the environment.

Recycle - as a last option only.

There are four things to do before this.

Rebuy - this is key. If you buy materials made of recycled content you create a market and demand for the stuff others recycle. Look for, ask for, and get recycled content items.

Now that all being said, sometimes we have to use the recycle option. If you are going to do this, please do it correctly. The University participates in the same "single stream" recycling program run by Waste Management in Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County. So if you know those rules, the same applies here. If you don't know, look on the lids of the big blue rolling recycling bins on campus, most have a sticker showing what can go in them. In a short summary, most paper and cardboard are fine. This includes paperboard and paper milk containers and similar, as long as they are clean and dry. Most pizza boxes do not thus qualify. I've seen them. Glass bottles, plastics bottles and aluminum cans are also fine as long as they are also completely empty. Leave the lids in the landfill. Same with the straws.

Some things really can mess up the recycling system and key among those are plastic bags and other plastic film. The flexible stuff gets wrapped around the recycling equipment and can shut it down. Please only rigid plastic, like bottles. Also Styrofoam has to go in the trash. Lastly, anything that is really contaminated by food or other material should go in the landfill. If those end up in our single stream recycling, it can contaminate thousands of pounds of recycling and force it all to be sent to the landfill.

Bottom line, please don't recycle. If you have to, please do as I suggest here. Have a great Earth Day!

John Sagebiel