Muhlenberg has always made sustainability a priority on this campus, from the way we use our energy to how we dispose our trash. However, further examination of our trash and recycling systems, in conjunction with observation of student recycling habits, raises the question of whether or not the college is as environmentally friendly as it may appear.

Options for trash and recycling are offered across campus. Photo courtesy of Sydney Coplin / The Muhlenberg Weekly

Campus trash and recycling are sent to two different facilities. Recyclables are retrieved by a single stream recycling company, while garbage is picked up by Sustainable Waste Solutions (SWS) and is burned to become fuel in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. With this system, Muhlenberg claims that the college’s main campus is now “landfill-free.” But is it?

Upon brief observation of students disposing of their trash in General’s Quarters (GQ), it is clear that many members of the Muhlenberg community have been using the dual recycling and trash bins incorrectly. They recycle single-use plastic items without first cleaning them out—contaminating the recycling bin with leftover hummus, pretzels and water, to name just a few of the items improperly disposed of.

Although the recycling and trash bins in GQ are clearly labeled with images of what belongs in the trash and what should be recycled, many students still throw their waste in the incorrect bin.

Some students have become more conscious of their disposing habits, while others make it less of a priority. “I’ve always recycled, but I’ve become a lot more conscious within the past year of the way I’m actually recycling,” says Tori Fuerst ‘19. “I now know that I need to rinse my recyclables out and there’s different types of plastics that can and cannot be recycled.”

“When I’m in GQ, and see the trash and recycling bins separated, I’ll make the effort,” says Angelica Bakhos ‘19. “When I’m in my suite, it’s this subconscious thing that I’m in my home and at home we throw everything in the same bin because my township doesn’t require them to be separate.”

With so much of the college’s recycling being affected by contamination, recycling bins on campus may be doing more harm than good, according to Dieter Sheel of SWS.

“The load might be rejected at the recycling plant, costing the college a significant amount of money, or the container would be rejected on site and dumped as trash,” says Sheel.

If students are not able to clean out their single-use plastic containers, they should simply throw them in the trash to avoid contamination.

 “The new recycling rule in America is, ‘If in doubt, throw it out!’,”

“The new recycling rule in America is, ‘If in doubt, throw it out!’,” adds Sheel.

In order to combat this issue and help the college live up to their claim of being “landfill-free,” there are two options: either eliminate recycling on campus and send all waste to SWS, or work harder to educate students on proper recycling practices.

The Office of Sustainability and student organization EnAct, the Environmental Action Team, are working on the latter.

“The standards for required cleanliness of plastics have changed, and that’s probably a good thing since it means that more plastics will get recycled,” notes Kalyna Procyk, sustainability coordinator. “Sometimes they can be rinsed out, other times a quick wipe-down with a napkin will do. Educating students so they know this is a new part of the more stringent process will be important.”

In order to push this education agenda, EnAct has plans in the works to capture student attention and spread the word about recycling.

EnAct advocates for recycling on campus. Photo courtesy of Sydney Coplin / The Muhlenberg Weekly

“We plan to do tabling in the future and to work with dining and plant ops to change the signage so that it is more clear for students,” says Mimi Salters ’20, EnAct’s president. “We also talk about what is and is not recyclable at meetings and new members are always welcome to learn more.”

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