Problems with recycling at Williams

Every time you get your mail from Baxter, chances are you throw at least one piece of paper into one of the many red bins circling the mailroom. And after every weekend you probably wind up hauling quite a few cans and bottles down to your trash room to toss them into one of those yellow bins. Or maybe you’re that guy who places his the uneaten half of his tuna melt in the nearest bin regardless of color. Either way, you are at least conscious of all of those differently colored bins found all over our campus. But does the widespread availability of these recycling bins necessarily translate into an effective system? And what else can be done to encourage students to recycle and not simply see the bins as another trashcan? Both of these are issues that Buildings and Grounds (B&G) along with the help of student groups like GreenSense (formerly known as the Purple Druids) are attempting to answer.

The College’s recycling process begins with custodians who are responsible for bringing recyclables from trash rooms to storage containers located at the Agway barns off of Dennison Park Drive. Haulers collect the materials from there and bring them to transfer stations. According to Beatrice Miles, manager of custodial services and special functions, “Buildings and Grounds does a good job with the recycling program that is in place, but I recognize the need to expand the program.” Through August of last year, B&G recycled 126 tons of newspaper, corrugated cardboard, magazines and paper. The numbers for last spring indicated that they were recycling about 1/3 of the College’s waster. This number included student composting efforts, however, which recently have ceased entirely.

Some students are not quite as optimistic as the College in regards to recycling. Malin Pinsky ’03 a head of a campus activism subgroup and member of GreenSense said that, “The College as a whole is not doing a good job. The system that we have in place to collect recycled materials is confusing, and few students to understand it. The bins often aren’t easily accessible, or clear as to what needs to go where. For example, how many students know that the blue barrels in Baxter are only for glossy paper, while all other paper goes in the red barrels?” Those students who do not know all the different categories of recyclable materials and their corresponding color-coded bin can unknowingly spoil entire bins. Custodians who come across bins with too much incorrectly sorted materials treat it as garbage. Pinsky and other members of GreenSense are working closely with B&G to try to rectify student ignorance by designing posters that better explain exactly what goes where.

Even with these efforts, however, Pinsky remains somewhat concerned. “The most basic problem is that the College as an institution isn’t putting the effort into making sure the system works. The staffperson in B&G in charge of recycling has enough other things to worry about, and little energy can be devoted to fixing what we have.” Pinsky pointed to Middlebury, with its director of environmental planning who coordinates both recycling and composting efforts, as an example of a college that is more concerned with its waste habits than Williams.

Becky Sanborn ’01 of GreenSense faults not only the College but the student body as well. “I think apathy is the biggest problem with the recycling program, on two fronts: students are apathetic about recycling and reducing their waste, and the College is apathetic about improving the program and making sure it runs efficiently. This one problem can probably account for almost every other problem with the system, from contamination of bins, to cans and bottles being thrown in the trash, to the lack of bins in key places on campus.”

Brian Werner ’01, who used to head up the school’s composting efforts before a variety of problems effectively shut it down, agreed with Sanborn’s sentiments that apathy, on the part of both the administration and the student body, is the greatest obstacle to the College’s system. “As I saw today while leaving my American Studies class, if a recycling bin is not within easy reach, kids will throw a soda bottle in the garbage rather than try to find a recycling bin.”

GreenSense, with the help of B&G, has started planning a trial program for Hubbell, Weston, Baxter, and the Mission lobby. They want to install better labeled recycling bins that have lids designed to receive only appropriate materials. Lids for metal, glass and plastic recycling bins would have a circular slot to receive bottles, while those for paper bins would have a narrower slit. The plan also calls for an even greater number of bins then now available. As Sanborn explains, “I think it is important to add more recycling bins in certain places. People are fundamentally lazy, and will recycle only if it is convenient for them. If there is a recycling bin nearby but no trash can, they will throw trash into the recycling, and vice versa.”