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Campus Recycling, Beyond the Bin

Recycling is an essential component of Northwestern’s Strategic Sustainability Plan, and the University is working to increase recycling rates while decreasing the amount of waste that goes to landfills. To make recycling easy for everyone on campus, the University collects the most common recyclable materials in mixed recycling bins distributed throughout buildings and outdoor spaces. However, since few see the next steps of the process, students and University employees occasionally express curiosity about what happens to the materials they have so carefully placed in the proper bins.

Northwestern and its custodial staff are committed to sustainability, and the items in the blue bins are carefully handled for recycling. Let’s dive in to see what happens after items are placed in campus recycling bins.

Northwestern collects "mixed recycling," which means paper, cardboard, cans, plastic, and glass can all be placed in the same bin. (For recycling information on other items, click here.) The change from pre-sorted to mixed recycling involves new technology that allows for sorting to occur at the plant rather than requiring people to take that step beforehand. Northwestern switched to mixed recycling in 2016, streamlining collections and helping to make recycling easier and more accessible.

After items are placed in recycling bins, members of the custodial staff empty the bins and put the materials in specific recycling dumpsters. The hauling company uses a dedicated recycling truck to take materials to a recovery facility, where everything is sorted.

At the facility, items are placed on a conveyor belt. Items are sorted through a series of steps involving human and mechanical processes. Workers remove items that can’t be recycled. Screens filter out corrugated cardboard and newspapers, magnets remove steel and other metal cans, and an infrared laser identifies plastic and uses puffs of air to move it to a separate bin. An eddy current recognizes aluminum cans and repels them into their own bin. After sorting, the materials are sold to companies that make them into new products. The new products are then sold, and materials are recycled again, completing the loop.

People often ask whether an entire load gets thrown out if a piece of trash such as a wrapper gets thrown into the recycling bin. Fortunately, a few pieces of trash will not cause the entire bin to go to a landfill. Non-recyclables are removed during the sorting process. However, it is still important to check if an item is recyclable before placing in the recycling bin. Using proper labeling on bins reduces confusion about what can be recycled. Labels, signage, and clearly labeled recycling bins are available through sustainNU and can be requested as needed.

Resource Conservation, which includes recycling as a key area of focus, is one of the main program areas outlined in Northwestern’s Strategic Sustainability Plan. The plan sets a goal of diverting 50 percent of all campus waste from landfills by the year 2020, and progress is already underway. During the 2016 to 2017 academic year, 38 percent of waste generated on campus was recycled or composted. Last year, Northwestern recycled and composted over 2,800 tons of waste, compared to just over 4,000 tons sent to the landfill. This was an improvement from the 1,700 tons recycled in 2011.

Recycling keeps waste out of landfills and reduces the amount of debris found in our environment. The use of recycled materials to create new products also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. This continues to be one of the simplest ways to reduce your carbon footprint. The process is also good for the economy, as recycling employs over 750,000 workers according to the U.S. EPA, and is profitable through the sell-back of materials.

To encourage recycling participation, sustainNU created this short video to educate the Northwestern community about the role janitorial staff plays in recycling and ensuring that materials are handled properly. Everyone on campus can pitch in to increase Northwestern’s landfill diversion rate. Contact sustainNU if you need bins, labels, or signage to help everyone in your space waste less and recycle more.