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Recycling on Millikin’s Campus: Are the Rumors Unfounded?

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Recycling on Millikin’s Campus: Are the Rumors Unfounded?

Photo by Justin Taylor

Photo by Justin Taylor

Photo by Justin Taylor

Lane Caspar

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Millikin University offers recycling services to students in on-campus buildings and in residence halls, however, the enforcement of strict contamination rules by Midwest Fiber and the lack of knowledge about recycling policies on campus cause many recyclables to end up in the landfill.

In recent years, rumors circulated that Millikin does not recycle, and any discarded items in recycling bins end up being disposed of with the rest of the campus waste. These rumors stemmed from confusion about the single-stream recycling processes on campus, and lack of awareness about what materials can be accepted as recyclable.

Many students and even faculty were under the impression that no recycling services were offered on campus at all. However, audits from the Waste Management recycling company show that Millikin University recycled 20.51 tons of material in 2017 and 25.43 tons of material in 2018.

These audits clearly show that the campus does, in fact, recycle, even if it is done discreetly and is overlooked by students. This rumor is not completely unfounded, though; many students still feel unsatisfied with the education about the recycling policy on campus, as well as the lack of proactivity used to resolve issues within the system.

Michael Kuropas, Director of Facility Services, said that the university is “trying to recycle as much as [it] can,” through the single-stream method that is contracted through Midwest Fiber, adding that numbers for recycling have been going up throughout his three years at Millikin.

Kuropas said that Millikin University currently utilizes single-stream recycling, which is when all materials are co-mingled into one bin, rather than sorted. Kuropas said that every building on campus is equipped with recycling bins, and most individual classrooms and offices have bins, as well. Facility Services employees pick up the recycling with the trash regularly and only opt to wait to take out a bin of recycling if it is not yet filled.  

The materials that are collected by Facility Services employees are placed in larger dumpsters, are then the dumpsters are hauled by Waste Management workers. Waste Management subcontracts to Midwest Fiber, which may choose to reject the materials due to contamination reasons.

Contamination is when non-recyclables are mixed in with recyclable materials, or when recyclable materials are compromised. A plastic coffee cup that has not been rinsed out is an example of contamination; although the plastic is recyclable, the food remnants can cause the plastic to be rejected. Too much contamination in one dumpster, and recycling companies may opt to take the entire container to the landfill instead.

Another issue with contamination is the money businesses like Midwest Fiber have to spend in order to rectify the situation.

Professor Roslyn O’Conner, Coordinator for the Environmental Studies Program at Millikin, said that “[contamination] is very costly for the recycling company to remove from the recycling assembly line, because it typically has to be done by hand, and the assembly line has to be shut down while cleaning out the contaminants.”

On Midwest Fiber’s website, one can find helpful documents that outline what is considered acceptable materials and what is considered contaminated. Most materials college students use on a daily basis are accepted–if the materials are clean of food remnants.

Ultimately, it is up to students to rinse materials before recycling–and check to be sure the type of material is accepted by Midwest Fiber– to ensure they are not part of the contamination problem.

Paul Lidy, The Director of Residence Life at Millikin University, said that all residence halls are equipped with the necessary supplies to allow students to recycle. Each dorm room is provided with an individual bin for collecting recyclables, and then each floor has a communal, larger bin where all materials are placed for pick up by Facility Services. If any room or floor does not have a bin, Lidy says this is a mistake that can be rectified by contacting Facility Services.

Although students on campus and in dorms have the opportunity to recycle, Kuropas recognized that The Woods apartment complex that most sophomore, junior, and even senior students live in is a “big gap in [Millikin’s] recycling program.”

Currently, The Woods apartment complex does not offer recycling services to its residents. Lidy said he has not yet spoken with the new management at The Woods about their stance on recycling, and whether they plan to implement a system in the future. At this time, Lidy is unaware if the new management would be willing to invest in a contract with Waste Management to get recycling picked up.

Kuropas said that, unfortunately, The Woods is “not controlled” by Millikin, so ultimately any decisions regarding recycling at the apartment complex are out of his hands. He said that students who live in The Woods “can’t recycle–at least, not easily.”

Sydney Gershon, past resident of The Woods, said that she was disappointed when she found out that recycling was not offered at the apartment complex, considering the large amount of tenants and the negative impact producing so much waste has on the environment.

Gershon lived in an apartment at The Woods through the 2017-2018 school year and collected her own recyclables to be taken to a drop-off location throughout this time. When asked if she thought this was common with other students to take the initiative to drop off their own recyclables, she said no.

“Students are busy,” Gershon said, “and, realistically, expecting students to take the time to bring their recyclables to a drop off location is not a viable solution.”

Many students share Gershon’s frustration with The Woods’ disinterest in implementing new policies that would better represent the values of Millikin students, despite the extremely high monthly rent rates.

Students such as Gershon who live in the apartments will not be able to recycle their materials conveniently, unless The Woods looks into contracting with a recycling company.

Contracts with recycling companies such as Waste Management are not as easy to come by in Macon County as they once were. Kuropas said that when he first started his job in an office building years ago, companies were “all but paying him to recycle,” because companies were able to make such a large profit from recyclable materials, and were able to accept materials with higher contamination.  

Now, it’s becoming harder and harder for recycling companies to make a profit from contaminated materials, which leads to large amounts of recyclables being turned away and thrown into landfills instead. This struggle to make a profit also means companies are deciding not to serve larger businesses.

The Macon County Environmental Management Municipal Waste Plan Update report from 2012 highlights a lot of relevant information pertaining to recycling. In that document, it is explained that most recycling in Macon County is serviced by private providers. Curbside recycling services, provided by the local municipality, is available in eight out of 13 communities: Argenta, Decatur, Forsyth, Long Creek, Macon, Mt Zion, Oreana, and Warrensburg.

The report says, “Most of these [curbside] programs, including Decatur’s, are single-stream recycling programs that do not require sorting recyclables. All refuse pick-up contracts with Decatur require that the hauler provide once-a-week recycling service. These communities represent 82% of the total county population. However, the curbside programs do not service businesses, institutions, or larger multi-family buildings.”

O’Conner explained that companies such as Midwest Fiber and Waste Management may decide not to service large businesses because of the cost associated with it. She said that the coordination of picking up large quantities of recycling from big businesses costs too much to justify the service, considering the extra drivers, gasoline, and trucks that would be necessary.

Waste Management and Midwest Fiber representatives were asked to provide information into the recycling services provided by their companies in Macon County, but neither chose to comment.

An ongoing issue with the recycling policies at Millikin is the education about single-stream recycling and the contamination risk that goes with it.  

Although single-stream is an easier process because no sorting is required by consumers, there are major flaws within the system. Putting all materials into one bin causes a much greater risk of contamination, and therefore increases the risk that the bin of recyclables will be rejected by the recycling company.

Megan Owens, Student Senate President, said that this issue has been brought up to the Student Senate on multiple occasions. They talked with Dean Prange last year about a more effective recycling process, but no new process was ever decided upon and proposed.  

Kuropas agreed that the limit of contamination has become very difficult to adhere to, and said that Millikin is considering a different method than single-stream, because no one wants entire bins of materials to be rejected just because “someone threw out a pizza box.”

For now, education seems to be the easiest way to ensure recyclables are handled properly on campus. Currently, most students are still ignorant of what materials can be recycled into our single-stream bins and what is deemed a contaminant.

Z Paul Reynolds, Director of Student Development and the University Commons, said that there was a lot of confusion about recycling when the University Commons first opened, and this miscommunication has continued to be an ongoing issue. He stated that Facility Services has been working on education components to ensure students know what they can recycle and where they should deposit the materials.

Reynolds said that he believes “we need to do a better job with built-in solutions, as well as better education to the campus community at-large.”

Reynolds is not alone in this sentiment. Paraprofessionals Bailey Hope and Zach Thompson both agreed that education is necessary when combating this issue on campus. At this time, there isn’t specific paraprofessional training that is geared towards educating residents about what is considered acceptable recyclable materials. This type of training could allow Resident Assistants and Peer Mentors to educate their residents to ensure entire bins of recyclables aren’t rejected by the recycling companies.

Owens also mentioned an awareness campaign as a way to help educate on the subject within the campus community. She suggested posters and FaceBook posts–anything to boost awareness and understanding about what materials are able to be recycled on campus.  

Many people agree that although recycling is an impressive process that helps repurpose materials that would otherwise be discarded into the landfill, our first priority as consumers should be reducing our impact by using fewer materials, to begin with.

“The most effective system of all is to decrease the amount of new products people buy,” O’Conner said. “This is why the first “R” is Reduce, then Reuse, then Recycle.”

Tom Duncanson, professor of Communication and Environmental Studies, agrees that our focus as a community should be on reducing our use of single-use materials because we will reach a “tipping point” soon when it comes to the issue of pollution.

“There are these points where we just go crashing over to doom,” Duncanson said. “Once you start thinking that way, you start worrying about where all those tipping points are. Air is breathable, yes, yes, yes–no. Water is drinkable, yes, yes, yes–no. And the difference between one and the other is a pretty subtle thing.”

Students can take control of their own carbon footprint by choosing to reduce the amount of both recyclable and non-recyclable materials used daily, and by paying attention to contamination before throwing an item into a recycling bin on campus.

“I see recycling as wonderful, and I encouraged everyone to participate,” Duncanson said. “But I’m afraid a lot of things are being recycled that never get recycled. I’m afraid that too much of [the contamination] is not economic enough to deal with today, and ends up in the landfill.”

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