What happens to recycling?
Have you ever noticed that there are different types of trash cans on campus? There are red bins and black bins, but do the colors mean anything? Are plastic bags recyclable? What happens to your trash after it leaves your hand? The process is complicated and involves many steps.
After it leaves your room
Once a student puts their trash into the appropriate container (remember, on campus black bins are for trash, red bins are for recycling), the trash is collected by Ohio State staff and made ready to pick up by a trash hauling company. On a typical day during the semester, Ohio State disposes of about 60 tons of waste, 25 percent of which is recyclable materials. As they collect the trash, the staff looks to ensure that the amount of recycling “contamination” is minimized. Contamination occurs when non-recyclable items are placed into the recycling containers. If there is too much contamination, staff disposes the trash into the trash cans, rather than risk having an entire truckload get sent to the landfill, which is what happens when there are too many non-recyclable items in the load. As such, Ohio State’s housekeeping staff serves as the first line of defense when it comes to keeping our recycling stream clean.
Recycling contamination is an ongoing issue at Ohio State and other college campuses, and our staff works hard to address it. For example, in Student Life, Environmental Services also works closely with residence hall staff to ensure that problems are minimized. According to Larence Washington, Associate Director of Environmental Services in the Office of Student Life, his department actively cooperates with the residence hall directors and RAs, so that when the custodial staff observes too much mixing of recycling and trash in trash cans or recycling bins, the environmental services managers talk to the residence hall directors and RAs to help educate residents on how to recycle properly, thus helping to minimize contamination.
Environmental Services plays other important roles in helping to keep our facilities clean. According to Larence, the staff in his department handle daily operations including pest control, cleaning, snow removal, and trash collecting in Student Life buildings. When they clean our facilities, they ensure that surfaces are sanitized using chemicals that kill germs and sterilize surfaces. Larence credits Environmental Services staff members in helping to maintain cleanliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing out that his staff were all essential to ensuring Ohio State was ready to open offices and residential spaces when the quarantining ended fall semester 2020.
After it leaves your residence hall/class building
On campus, most of our trash and recycling is collected from the buildings by Recycling and Refuse Services, part of the Facilities and Operations Department (FOD). Trash collected by FOD goes to the Franklin County landfill. Molly Kathleen, Ohio State’s Zero Waste Coordinator, says that when FOD collects the commingled recycling, it gets taken to the Rumpke Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Columbus. Additionally, the Recycling and Refuse team measures and tracks how much trash Ohio State creates and works with different campus departments to help increase the amount of material that gets diverted from the landfill. Ohio State has a goal of 90 percent diversion rate by 2025.
At the MRF, the recyclables are first hand-sorted to help remove any remaining contamination, and then the materials are fed through machinery to help sort the materials. Plastic and glass are separated from paper and metals by machines to different lines, where additional sorting takes place. Once materials are separated, they are cleaned to remove impurities and then broken down further to component parts, which are then sold to manufacturers as raw materials to create new products. For example, plastic bottles are broken down to pellets, which are then sold to create carpet, clothing, or other plastic bottles.
Some common questions and concerns
Often, students ask the question, “Why are the rules for recycling different here than they are at my home?” or “Why can’t I recycle plastic bags on campus?” Tom Reeves, the director of Sustainability for the Office of Student Life, says that these rules are set by the MRF, who bases what they will accept on what they can sell to companies to use as raw materials to manufacture new goods. And everyone within that municipality must follow that MRF’s rules. “The only thing that the recycling symbol you see on containers means is that somewhere in the world, that particular item is recyclable,” says Tom. And the rules change often, based on those market conditions. The good news, though, is that Rumpke is beginning to accept more and more recyclable items in our recycling stream, allowing for more waste diversion from the landfill.
So, what about plastic bags? Unfortunately for now, those plastic bags cannot go into our regular recycling stream. When they get mixed into our recycling stream, the bags can get tangled into the sorting equipment, clogging its gears and shutting the entire recycling process down until the gears can be cleared. As such, people need to be sure bring their plastic bags to most grocery stores and other retailers, who usually accept clean plastic bags that their vendors can recycle.
Ohio State students care about the environment, and most students take care to recycle items appropriately. The rules do get confusing, sometimes, so if you see someone putting trash into the recycle bin and causing contamination, take a moment to help your fellow students out—recycling is important, but recycling correctly is as important. The rules for on-campus are the same as the rules for the city of Columbus, and they can be found at https://fod.osu.edu/sustainability/zero-waste/recycling.