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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 second best idea for campus recycling
February 11, 2009 - 6:27pm

Greenback U has a lot of recycling containers on campus.

Many are for paper only, some are for paper and cans/bottles/plastics in a single stream, and some are for paper and cans (etc.) separately. In addition, we have specialty recycling/disposal containers for batteries, for aerosol cans, for corrugated cardboard. If I get my way, we'll have a couple of specialty recycling containers for cell phones.

Some of the containers we get for free, from the municipal waste management agency. Some (like the ones for corrugated cardboard) are really just dumpsters with special labeling, and are handled under our waste removal contract. Some are just plastic dishpans or baskets which the office occupant knows to use for recycling, and which the custodian knows to collect in the same category. But some, particularly the ones in high-traffic public areas, are large and expensive and designed to be unobtrusive.

It's that unobtrusive part which I needs to change.

In a campus environment, recycling isn't just about diverting waste from the landfill. (Oh, it's about that too. Don't get me wrong. Waste diversion rates are a key success metric for recycling programs.) On campus, recycling is also about shaping perceptions and expectations. However much impact students create by recycling on campus, their recycling behaviors over the rest of their lives will be far more important. The campus environment is a key educational tool, but only if we use it as such. (In fact, one of the things I like about a cell phone recycling program is that just having it in place delivers a message which (I believe and hope) will resonate with a large number of students in a way that recycling computer paper is unlikely to.)

But if the presence of recycling containers is going to deliver a non-verbal message, that message is best delivered in a consistent format -- a consistent appearance. And, at Greenback, we're not doing that yet.

The color blue and the three-arrow triangular symbol both communicate recycling in a general way, and I want to continue using those. Some of our large recycling containers are sort of a gray-beige neutral color, and I'm thinking of getting big blue stick-on signage to make them more visually obvious in a consistent sort of a way.

But also, I'm looking at color-coding, using some sort of consistent scheme, the tops of the various containers. I'd like to make it so that (for example), white always means paper, red always means cans and bottles, green always means batteries, and so forth. Not eliminate the wording or (in come cases) the suggesting shape/size of the opening on the top, but reinforcing the message of what the container is for by use of consistent colors. Do it right, and a student can tell from across the room where the batteries (as opposed to the soda cans) go. Make it obvious enough, and even the relatively unobservant (let us not say "oblivious") may even know without thinking where a nearby recycling container is.

Given our current mix of bins, my guess is that a large percentage of the time a student will have to consciously look for a recycling container if (s)he wants to dispose of a recyclable item. The more someone has to look for a way to do the right thing, the more likely it is that the (wrong) alternative will turn out to be easier. And that helps neither diversion rates nor the development of healthy expectations.


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