Recycling lies

By the

October 23, 2003

Fifteen hundred incoming first-years. Four days. Three meals a day. Each meal is served on plastic plates, carried in cardboard boxes, with one can of soda per meal.

New Student Orientation serves as a meeting ground, a discussion forum, and a catering service for hordes of new Hoyas and hundreds of older advisors. Even if overwhelmed students skip the icebreakers, they’ll almost always show up for the free food. Nearly all of the materials used for these meals, from the plastic silverware to the aluminum cans, can be recycled. But for years, Marriott, which caters most campus events including NSO, did not provide the means for students to recycle, unless they were willing to sort through garbage. Only this year, when coordinators turned to the Office of Campus Activity Facilities for help, did recycling bins show up at NSO events.

Increasing costs of garbage disposal and decreasing landfill space are stark realities. While waste is an inevitable consequence of the consumer lifestyle, recycling offers an economically and environmentally appealing way to deal with the tons of refuse a university can generate. But Georgetown isn’t taking full advantage of this option. The University has failed to implement recycling in dining and catering services. And every month when Georgetown reports its waste quantities to the D.C. Office of Recycling, as mandated by law, it discloses incorrect numbers.

It’s on the Books

In 1988, the District of Columbia enacted the “Mandatory Source Separation Program” for those properties which do not have their waste collected by the District’s garbagemen. Georgetown University and other schools are included in this category. The law requires businesses to recycle paper, including cardboard, as well as glass, metal, and some plastics.

The law requires that each business submit a recycling plan to the D.C. Office of Recycling and report the quantities it recycles monthly. In addition, it must update its recycling plan every two years. Georgetown has complied with the latter, but disclosure of accurate recycling quantities has been a continuing problem.

Unfortunately, the law has not been enforced due to lack of funds. Although monitors were finally hired in 2002, this past year has been an educational year of sorts, according to Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a non-profit educational organization in D.C. The Office of Recycling has issued more warnings than fines.

Fallen From Grace

On a college campus, the benefits of recycling are numerous. Recycling saves money that would be better allocated to other projects. Student-managed recycling programs can create hands-on opportunities for students to gain experience with environmental conservation, urban economics, research and analysis, management, and communications.

To a cash-strapped, socially-conscious university like Georgetown, recycling offers clear advantages: Save money and the environment at the same time. But neither Georgetown administrators nor Georgetown students are taking the necessary steps to reap the benefits of recycling.

Georgetown has a rich history of recycling conscientiously. In 1988, even before the District mandated recycling programs, the Georgetown University Environmental Society, a student-run organization, was collecting newspapers and aluminum cans. After D.C. passed the law, the University took up the students’ commitment. Georgetown led D.C. universities in implementing an effective recycling program, receiving awards in 1993 and 1994 from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments for recycling excellence.

However, in recent years, the University seems to have forgotten its past committment. In 1996, Georgetown Recycles diverted 43 percent of its waste from landfills. This year, the University reported that it recycled an average of 15 percent of its waste; at its best, during move-in, only 25 percent of waste was diverted.

According to Recycling Manager Pat Dollar, these numbers do not even reflect Georgetown’s recycling accurately. They only account for waste produced by the faculty and students, ignoring dining and catering services, which produce a significant amount of campus waste. Every delivery of food is contained in a cardboard box. When food is provided for outdoor campus activities, it is almost always accompanied by plastic flatware and aluminum soda cans. This amounts to massive amounts of recyclable waste that remains unaccounted for.

According to Dollar, the amount of waste produced by dining services exceeds the amount produced by the rest of the University combined.

Abby Ybarra, an environmental education specialist in the D.C. Office of Recycling, said that even though dining services are contracted out to Marriott, its recycling practices are the responsibility of the University. “Georgetown is the hauler,” he said. “It’s on their campus, they are responsible for all that.” The law requires that Georgetown report quantities recycled each month.

Marriott’s recycling practices are under the auspices of the Office of Auxiliary Services. Dollar works in the Office of Facilities Management, meaning Marriott’s practices fall outside her jurisdiction.

Dollar said that Auxiliary Services does not collect data on waste. Margie Bryant, associate vice president for Auxiliary Services declined to comment. Her supervisor, Senior Vice President Spiros Dimolitsas, also refused to comment.

Because Dollar does not know what Marriott recycles, she is reporting inaccurate data to the Office of Recycling. “My numbers are skewed because I don’t control Marriott solid waste streams,” Dollar said. Such incomplete data collection violates D.C. law.

She said that though she reported a recycling rate of 20 percent, she estimated the actual recycling rate at approximately 12 percent. “It is and has been common knowledge that Marriott does not recycle,” she said.

Jeannie Quirk, director of food and beverage for Marriott’s conference center in Leavey, refused to comment.

Still, according to Dollar, Georgetown has the best recycling program of any university in D.C. Other universities employ a single-stream program, combining trash and recycling in one compactor and rendering potentially marketable recyclables unusable.

“Georgetown uses a more labor-intensive program, but we provide a marketable product to the recyclers,” said Dollar. “Is there room for improvement? Hell, yes. Are we doing bad? No.”

The strongest aspect of Georgetown’s recycling program may be Dollar herself. Once a lobbyist for the pulp-and-paper industry, she worked closely with the Office of Environmental Quality in the White House and was the recycling coordinator for the U.S. Congress.

Despite these qualifications, Dollar has been unable to implement many of her proposed program changes. She is ultimately responsible for the University’s recycling program, yet she has no staff to aid her efforts to comply with the law.

“I’m beginning to think that just her job is too big. That’s something the University can do,” said Sasha Kinney (SFS ‘06), a member of Eco-Action, a campus environmental group.

The core issue is diverting waste, and Dollar suggested several ideas on how to improve waste reduction. Charitable works, increased sustainability, and environmentally preferable purchasing are all in her grand plan.

“I’m not exactly just the dumpster diva around here,” she said.

The most pragmatic argument for improvement of our recycling program are the economic benefits that can be reaped. Dollar said she is ready for this upgrade. If Georgetown were to consolidate its recycling programs under one office, they could save a great deal of money, she said.

“It’s not that I don’t know how to run this as a profit center, it’s just that the way we’re set up, I can’t,” she said.

Round Objects, Round Holes

Students might blame the University for its inadequate recycling, but their own lack of commitment is no less of a problem. Faculty, students, and staff trying to improve the University’s recycling record say that they have been frustrated repeatedly by student apathy.

The biggest push for reform has come from Eco-Action, campus group devoted to environmental activism. In the past year, they have mounted a campaign to improve on-campus recycling.

Obstacles to everyday recycling are widespread on this campus. Recycling bins are often labeled incorrectly, and can be difficult to find. “I suspect that the availability of recycling bins might be the chief reason that things are not recycled,” said Nathan Hultman, assistant professor of Science, Technology and International Affairs. Hultman joined the University two months ago after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.

Even when recycling bins are available, accompanying trash cans often are not, increasing the risk of contamination by hurried students, activists say. Most students are not trying to hinder recycling efforts; they simply take advantage of conveniences. When recycling bins are nearby and there are no trash cans in sight, students throw their trash in a recycling bin, rather than actively seek out the appropriate receptacle.

Hultman noticed a culture of waste among the students almost immediately after arriving at Georgetown. This culture is most visibly manifested in the flyers that seem to leave no corner of Georgetown’s campus free of advertisement. In this race to have the most fliers on campus, an enormous amount of paper is wasted. “What we have is a public goods problem,” Hultman said. “The more postings go up, the more have to go up.”

This problem could be easily solved, he said, if people would agree to limit the number of fliers they post. But Hultman said he thinks that reducing waste is simply not a high priority for students at Georgetown.

Eco-Action’s Kinney says that students should be expected to take some responsibility for their actions. Recycling correctly isn’t difficult, she said. “It’s about seeing, there’s a round hole, I should put a round object in it,” Kinney said.

Students continue to throw trash in recycling bins or put recyclables in the wrong bin, believing falsely that everything just ends up in the same place. This carelessness hits harder than one might expect. When one piece of trash, or food, or simply the wrong kind of plastic is thrown into a bin, none of its contents can be recycled; according to Kinney, sorting is too costly. Environmental activists point to lack of student participation as the biggest reason for unsatisfactory recycling rates.

Kinney also suggested that participating in recycling can have educational value. When students are recycling, they are thinking about the impact they have on the world, and that shapes how they will interact with the world in the future. Moreover, they are forced to consider the origins of the everyday materials they use.

“I think that the ethical aspect of it is more important than anything else,” Beach agreed.

Activists say that recycling can have a special significance at a Jesuit university dedicated to service and charity. “We are a Jesuit school, there’s this theme of ‘oh, let’s give back,’ but let’s give back to the earth too,” said Andrew Tein (SFS ‘05), another member of Eco-Action.

Ultimately, reducing student apathy is an uphill battle, Kinney said. Until recycling is automatic, students will continue to drop a soda can in the convenient trash bin before running to their next class or meeting. “It shouldn’t be an option. It just needs to be a consciousness. That’s the hardest thing,” said Kinney.

A Recycler’s Paradise

The District of Columbia has set a 45 percent recycling rate as its goal. When Georgetown is only recycling at 15 percent, compliance may seem daunting. However, universities around the country have implemented extremely effective recycling programs over the past few years. The University of Oregon has created a model program that has achieved a recycling rate of 40.23 percent, and a 5 percent reduction in total waste between 2001 and 2003.

The University of Oregon’s award-winning recycling program has been officially recognized by the institution since 1991. Created out of a grassroots student initiative, the program began when Karyn Kaplan and a group of about ten other students began to pester the administration for a more comprehensive campus recycling system.

The campus newspaper ran an editorial and an article on the fledgling group’s efforts, and soon the administration was receiving phone calls from enthusiastic members of the community. “I didn’t know what I was doing. We just knew what we needed to do,” says Kaplan.

Just as garbage crosses all social boundaries, so did the positive feedback from the campus community. It began to snowball. The administration soon got tired of the consistent requests, and decided to give the students a chance-and a budget.

Oregon’s recycling program is a model because of its thoroughness. Its strength lies in its high level of student involvement: Using student staff, it recycles basically everything. Students get experience within their fields while creating one of the most comprehensive recycling programs in the country and saving money for the university.

And it’s not just a west coast thing, either. “The smart schools are doing it,” Kaplan said. According to her statistics, Penn, Yale, Northwestern, Brown, Tufts, and Duke all have effective recycling programs.

As for administrative roadblocks, Kaplan maintained her optimism, saying that solutions exist to every problem. “It’s all student labor and student interns,” she said. “Educational departments are involved as well. Facilities is just one aspect.”

In the end, recycling is rewarding for everyone involved. “There are economic benefits, feel-good benefits-people think that the university cares-camaraderie benefits; recycling allows a way for something to happen on a small, fundamental level,” Kaplan said.

Media attention, student support, and a few key administration players formed the basis of the University of Oregon’s recycling program. With Eco-Action pounding on the doors of the administration and Pat Dollar working for change from within, Georgetown has the ingredients necessary to form an effective recycling program. But the apathy that pervades the University culture as a whole impedes Georgetown’s ability to regain its previous position of recycling leadership.

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