Recycling in Sewanee: One man’s trash is another man’s…trash?

By Amelia Leaphart
Staff Writer

In theory, the rising concern about the planet’s future would motivate responsible recycling in the Sewanee community. Unfortunately, when looking through the recyclables in residential halls, one finds food-contaminated remnants, single-use plastics, food scraps, and used tissues. 

In reference to what plastics people ought to recycle, Facilities Management Energy Specialist Rachel Petropoulos said, “Bottles and jugs, bottles and jugs, bottles and jugs.” 

If recycling containers are littered with nonrecyclables, the bag ends up in the landfill because the custodial staff simply cannot sort through students’ trash. 

Petropoulos has worked at Sewanee for 19 years, and when sustainability initiatives gained traction in 2011, she helped with marketing and other organizational efforts. 

Petropoulos appreciates Sewanee’s journey in trying to figure out the best system for recycling, “It’s kind of a pity that some students don’t know the things that came before them. Now, [recycling] is so institutionalized. The Office of Sustainability… was not a thing a decade ago,” she explained.

According to Petropoulos, there has been discord with who’s in charge with recycling in the past. In the early 2000s, recycling was driven by student initiatives. The custodial staff considered recycling as an “add-on,” outside of their job description. Thus, students took recycling out of buildings themselves. However, it’s now considered to be part of the waste stream, and therefore is treated as an additional job for the custodians. 

Petropoulos is happy about the standardization of recycling at Sewanee, but there are discrepancies in Sewanee’s recycling that can lead to recyclables ending up in the landfill.

Franklin County Solid Waste takes Sewanee’s recycling and has a partnership with a manufacturer in Pennsylvania that melts and remakes our plastics. 

However, the only plastics worth remaking are from bottles and jugs. Plastics in the recycling world are categorically separated by numbers: one: Hard plastics like soda bottles, laundry detergents, cooking oil containers, peanut butter jars; and two: bottles and jugs used for milk cartons and shampoo bottles. 

Both one and two are important to recycle because they have a tight loop in the recycling system, meaning they can transform into new products in a relatively short amount of time while still being profitable for the manufacturer.

Three and four plastics include “rigid,” plastics, referencing to what’s used for toys and furniture and single-use plastics (bags, straws, and cups), are not recyclable. Because these plastics all have different melting points, they are not capitally efficient for businesses, thus they often end in the landfill along with the recyclable plastics they infested. 

“Here in 2019, we need to prevent, ‘wish-cycling,’” Petropoulos emphasized.

Franklin County doesn’t collect glass for safety purposes, but the University has sponsored glass collection for the county for eight years. The University receives revenue when the company, called Strategic Materials, picks up our glass and they utilize it for containers, fiberglass, highway beads, glass abrasives, fillers, specialty glass, and plastics. Recycling glass has numerous environmental benefits, such as lowering emissions, preventing depletion of resources, and preventing buildup in landfills, as glass takes 1,000,000 to degrade in a landfill.

According to Petropoulos, blue and green glass are the most profitable, and jumped in price this year from $5 to $25 a ton. Clear glass is $10 a ton while brown runs around $8. The University collects around 75 tons annually while avoiding landfill fees.

Another issue with recycling in the United States is that recycled plastic, alongside e-waste, is often shipped to China or India with the idea of being reused, but these scraps are often unusable. These countries have begun declining the United States’ trash within recent years. Fortunately, Franklin County’s waste all remains domestic. 

Petropolous highlighted a sobering recent addition to recycling news about how Old Corrugated Cardboard (OCC) has dropped to a 25 year low, meaning municipal revenue programs are plummeting. OCC is faring better than mixed paper, which has now reached negative two-dollars a ton, meaning money is lost from recycling paper. 

Many coffee shops like Stirling’s adopted compostable plastic to-go cups. Petropolos says that we can feel good about these products in the sense that they won’t be in the landfill for three-hundred years. However, compost needs oxygen to degrade quickly, which is deficient in landfill conditions. 

The ultimate solution to waste issues, according to Petropoulos, is not ignoring the two R’s that go before ‘recycle’: reduce and reuse. She’s praises recent efforts in limiting packaging, and says, “it’s better to have a bunch of people at least trying their best than a few zero-waste people.”