Most environmental enthusiasts are familiar with the three “Rs” of sustainability: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. But MSU Recycling has taken it upon themselves to bring a unique, additional “R” into the mix: Rethink. Rethinking current practices and taking simple steps of action often make for the most powerful difference.
Three times a week, heavy-duty green trucks gather the neighborhoods’ recycled cardboard and plastic. After being combined on the truck, it’s then transported to the campus recycling facility, where employees sort it on a moving assembly line. It is then baled and sold to vendors who reuse the materials.
Campus cardboard and plastic recycling has been going on this way for years. But Sean Barton, operations manager at MSU Recycling, has rethought the process to move away from combining materials upon pick up. Barton’s argument supporting the separation of these materials is justified simply. It saves time, energy, money and the environment.
Recently, MSU Recycling’s plastic and cardboard assemblage has totaled about 70 percent plastic and 30 percent cardboard. The problem is, the plastic is often sticky and dirty and ruins the cardboard if mixed together.
But by separating textiles, the plant can turn over more viable cardboard to recycle.
“Diverting from landfill is our number one goal,” Barton says. “But money is necessary.”
Recycling one ton of cardboard is worth $180. The same amount of plastic costs the university $40 to recycle. The plant relies on this money for truck maintenance, gasoline, the building’s mortgage and more.
The modified process has been in use for several weeks now, and the results are tremendous. The latest weekly collection resulted in 900 pounds of plastic and 1,120 pounds of cardboard.
This separation movement began with 77 facility buildings. Brody Hall then became the next target. Brody is the perfect location to test-drive this venture because it has two compacters available.
After two months of applying these procedures, the amount of usable cardboard has elevated and nearly all contamination has been eliminated. In short, this means a purer product for buyers, which improves outside relationships and reputation. Selling a better product also means more funding for the recycling program.
Trash contamination is another issue that comes with the recycling process. An average city recycling plant has to throw away anywhere from 8 to 15 percent of what’s collected as these materials are either contaminated or weren’t recyclable in the first place. Before separating materials, MSU was losing about 3.5 percent to waste.
The plastic separation has lowered the landfill rate to only one percent. Adding more residence halls to the new program would allow for more sorting time, which could decrease the rate even more.
The pilot is proving to be efficient in more ways than one. Sorting materials takes time and the use of many team members. However, adding Brody Hall and other buildings to the program saved the plant 12 hours on the recycling line. Furthermore, the time that would’ve been spent separating plastic from cardboard can be reallocated to the pursuit of sustainable goals. For example, Barton expects the extra time can be used to sort plastic materials more thoroughly. All plastic baled together makes less than no profit. Separating #2 plastics — a thicker material used to manufacture laundry detergent bottles — into their own category would allow the university to sell it at a profit. The price tag on a ton of plastic could increase from -$40 to over $200. With more sort-time available, more specific categories of plastic could be divided out for an even higher profit.
This efficiency extends from the recycling line to the trucks. MSU Recycling has two types of collection trucks: a giant, green, front-load truck for all materials and a smaller, white truck for plastics only. A full green truck gets two miles per gallon. The plastic truck gets 20 miles per gallon. Keeping plastic separate from cardboard means team members can use the plastic-only truck more, saving gas, money and resources.
Implementing this program at Brody has yielded substantial results for MSU Recycling. But rethinking a process at one residence hall is not enough. Barton has set further goals for this program, starting with the halls located in North and Brody neighborhoods. Their proximity to Brody Hall creates an easy route for truck drivers and allows them to collect from approximately 14 residence halls.
Barton sees this program continuing to move forward beyond these two neighborhoods. Akers Hall, located in East Neighborhood, has a broken compacter. During its downtime, MSU Recycling has kept plastic and cardboard materials separated. It is Barton’s hope that this separation can continue once the compacter is repaired. His goal is to include every residence hall in the program by the start of the fall 2018 semester.