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Sorting Trash for Sustainable Treasure

Duke introduces new way to recycle

Single-stream recycling stations like this one have started popping up around campus to encourage smarter waste management by students and employees. Photo by Bryan Roth.
Single-stream recycling stations like this one have started popping up around campus to encourage smarter waste management by students and employees. Photo by Bryan Roth.

Staff and faculty in the Sanford School of Public Policy, Smith Warehouse and the Wilson and Brodie recreation centers are taking part in a trash and recycling pilot program to help cut waste, increase recycling and get the community thinking about composting items like coffee grinds and paper towels.

Participants in the pilot project have switched to singe-stream recycling, which allows paper, plastic and aluminum to be collected in one bin. Over the summer, employees working in Sanford and Bays 1 to 3 of Smith Warehouse received new recycling bins and smaller wastebaskets that are about five inches wide and seven inches tall and will be emptied by each user at a centralized station in each building. For example, employees in Sanford can empty their trash at drop-offs in hallways.

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"Recycling is very important, so it's exciting that we get to set an example for the whole university," said Nancy Shaw, human resources manager at Sanford who drops off recyclable items like drink bottles, paper and more. "Recycling should be a natural thing and this is a great initiative."

The pilot was created after waste audits by Facilities Management's Recycling and Waste Reduction Unit in Sanford, Biological Sciences Building, Fuqua School of Business and the School of Nursing showed 40 percent of items thrown away could have been recycled and 43 percent could have been composted. That means only 17 percent of what was thrown away was actually trash.

"We knew that a significant portion of the waste stream would be compostable material and recyclables, but didn't realize it would be such a large percentage of the waste," said Arwen Buchholz, Duke's recycling and waste reduction coordinator. "Based on research from other universities and municipalities we're confident that making the switch to single-stream recycling will help us better capture the 40 percent recycling that was put in the trash."

The findings were presented to students, faculty and staff who are members of Duke's Campus Sustainability Committee, which supported the implementation of the project.

The recycling and waste program may roll out to other buildings in the future and continue to spread, Buchholz said. The pilot complements Duke's normal recycling efforts, which services about 1,600 bins across campus.

"Typically speaking, businesses that use mixed recycling see a 20 to 45 percent increase in collections when switching to a mixed recycling collection," she said. "By collecting post-consumer compost and mixed recycling, we want to get as much out of our waste stream as possible."

As part of the pilot project, compost bins have been placed in break rooms or bathrooms to collect materials like coffee grinds and paper towels and cups.

Karen Kemp, assistant dean for communications and marketing at Sanford and a co-leader of the school's "Green Team," said the pilot helps sustainability efforts because she's encountered confusion about what can and can't be recycled. She said some employees practice a different recycling process at home, where items can be comingled.

"Pursuing sustainability is connected to Duke's academic mission and it's important for us to walk the walk," Kemp said. "The waste we generate is our responsibility, so making us responsible for recycling or composting our own trash may make us think twice about what we're doing."