Reevaluating CMC's Recycling

Is there really a difference between the blue and brown waste bins around campus? At Claremont McKenna College it seems like the distinction between recycling and landfill means less than at any of the other Claremont Colleges. According to the Roberts Environmental Center’s 2010 CMC Waste Pilot study, 347.4 pounds of our daily recyclable material ends up in a trashcan. The study found that 33 percent of trash bins contain over 90 percent recyclables, and 44 percent of recycled bins on Claremont McKenna College’s campus were not recycled due to contamination by non-recyclable goods.

The Claremont Colleges, according to Mike Barnes at the city of Claremont Community Services Department, recycles 550 tons of recyclable material every year. Pomona contributes 200 tons, Scripps 125 tons, Pitzer 105, CMC and Harvey Mudd  75 tons. When the college’s total recycled material is divided by its respective student population we find that CMC has the lowest amount of recycling per student out of the Claremont Colleges. Perhaps this is why CMC is absent from the Sierra Club’s rankings of America's Coolest Schools, while Pomona and Pitzer ranked 25th and 102nd.

Put simply, we can do better. Why are our neighboring colleges so much more successful at recycling then we are? I’d like to be able to say that a lack of access to appropriate bins or uninformed students are to blame, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. The campus is spotted with blue recycle bins, (including one in every dorm room) and, as the Robert’s study states, “all of the recycling bins contained on average 90% recyclable materials. It is evident that there is common knowledge of what can be recycled.” It isn’t a lack of knowledge that’s causing the problem, but rather a disturbing level of apathy. So, if students are choosing not to recycle, what is preventing them from putting that bottle in the blue bin?

To this question I can only speculate, but I think it comes down to two main points: many students don’t see recycling as important, and many others don’t feel that their additional efforts will have an impact. CMC students choose not to recycle because they don’t see it as a priority. Many students might say, “Doesn’t it seem a little crazy to think that putting my trash in a blue bin instead of a brown one is really going to save the world?” Possibly, but recycling is not just about slowing down the rate at which we are filling up our landfills, but also valuing the resources that we have. By recycling we maximize the use of our materials, such as petroleum based polyethylene trephthalate (PET), plastics that are typically found in soda bottles. We are all aware of the shocking increase in petroleum prices over the past 12 months (43.5%, to be exact according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and it makes sense to conserve petroleum products in any way that we can. Therefore, for both environmental and economic reasons, we have a critical obligation to recycle more effectively than we do today.

I believe that most students would agree with this idea, but many don’t recycle because they see faults in CMC’s recycling program. I often hear the story of a recycling-inclined student watching a building attendant mix their recycle bin with their trash bin and conclude that there is no reason to recycle, because "it all gets mixed together anyway." This is an enormous problem, but one that will hopefully be addressed in the near future. Brian Worely, the director of facilities, acknowledges this and has made improving the situation his priority. He plans to improve “staff training and awareness” this year. But I, on the other hand, wouldn’t be so quick to blame the building attendants. First check to see if you really are recycling correctly (here or here). Your building attendant may be mixing the bins together because the recycling bin is contaminated, in which case they are directed, by CMC policy, to throw away the contents of contaminated goods.

To those who are recycling correctly, I would first like thank you for continuing undeterred by a somewhat discouraging recycling environment here at CMC. You’re efforts are helping to keep CMC environmentally sustainable. The next step is to establish a social incentive towards recycling on campus, which will hopefully increase our recycling rate. After all, wouldn't it be cool if it weren’t just a social norm on campus to recycle but a stylish practice as well?

Ben Feldman is the co-president of Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility (SPEAR)