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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

The best idea yet for improving campus recycling
February 9, 2009 - 5:48pm

As the economy has gone into the crapper, so has the market for most recyclable materials. It just doesn't pay to ship tons of used cardboard, or even steel, across the Pacific to use in making new products (and the packaging for new products) when sales are down across the board. Plants are closing. Even the Japanese car companies are showing annual losses. And -- this just in -- the current recession is already the worst in terms of job losses since WWII, and there's no sign that it's hit bottom yet. Prices for most recycled stuff will likely stay low -- too low to make recycling pay -- for quite a while.

However, recycling isn't the first choice in waste stream reduction even when times are good. Remember: "reduce, reuse, recycle." In that order. Given the recession, the "reduce" part is pretty much taking care of itself. But "reuse" is still better than "recycle", and for one major category of campus consumer good, the two are easily combined.

Cell phones.

I've noticed at Greenback that students have newer cell phones than faculty or staff. That's hardly surprising; a lot of students have newer cars, and clothes, and most everything else than faculty or staff. But with cellphones, they just seem to stay new -- certainly never more than two years old. And a two-year-old cellphone may be lacking the latest high-resolution digital video camera and monitor or qwerty keyboard, but it still works pretty well. (I know. The cellphone I use is probably seven or eight years old. Other than replacing the battery one time, it still works OK. And yes, I did recycle the old battery -- thanks for asking.)

So what I'm pushing on campus is a convenient way for students to donate ("recycle") their old, unloved cellphones. Those that are still fairly new will get resold or otherwise distributed for reuse. Older models will get broken down into their component materials, some of which are of significant value even in a down market. I'm looking at recycling partners/providers who certify (and monitor) that all recycling takes place in the USA, and who maximize the reuse, as opposed to recycle, part of the equation.

Really, finding the right partner seems to be the hardest part of the exercise. Recycling cellphones isn't like recycling paper. You don't need a bin under every desk and in every hallway; one in each dining center and one in the campus center or library would seem to suffice. But the fact that phones are relatively small, relatively high value, relatively high turnover (at least among the student population), and ubiquitous (when was the last time you saw a student walking on campus who wasn't talking to someone, even when they were walking alone?) would seem to make cellphone recycling a natural.

I wonder why we didn't think of it earlier?


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