The Road to Recycling on College Campuses
Guest Post by Max Campo, UMass Lowell Senior
During my past semester, I had the opportunity to intern at the Lowell Office of Solid Waste and Recycling. My main assignment during my internship was to create a survey, distribute it, and then write a paper with the results of the survey. The survey and the paper centered around the recycling habits of college students, mostly at UMass Lowell, but was not limited to it.
While I can’t talk too much about the specific results of the survey, the overall results were very much in line with similar surveys and studies conducted at other universities and colleges in the United States.
Overall, the majority of students are interested in recycling as often as they can. Students often care about the environment and recycling and want to participate where they can. In short, there is no lack of public interest in recycling. So where do the issues arise with college students and recycling? Well as it turns out, having the desire to recycle frequently does not mean that someone knows how to recycle correctly.
This proved to be the case in similar studies I encountered in research as well (1). Much of the public urging has been simply to recycle, but it is clear that something needs to change in that going forward. Improper recycling can lead to damages in recycling facilities that have the potential to be very costly.
While students had a general understanding of what items are disposable or recyclable, very often it becomes difficult for people to identify how to dispose of waste when it comes to specific items. For some reference as to the potential extent of the issue, an interview with Waste Audit at Western Technical College in 2018 revealed that in the bins on campus roughly 30% of waste was properly recycled (2).
Future encouragement of recycling and recycling campaigns should focus on teaching people common items that are not recyclable that often get recycled.
One way that this is already attempted on college campuses like UMass Lowell is the use of infographics on recycling bins. These show commonly disposed items and what is recyclable and what is not and are the front of the receptacles. This helps with the issue of not knowing how to dispose of specific items but is also limited in what is able to fit in the space of the infographic. These also likely do not help much with imparting lasting knowledge for whoever reads them.
Even though this strategy might help with public recycling bins, it does not do much for those recycling in off campus housing as any infographics are unlikely to be there.
The only way to really get at the issue of improper recycling is to get people interested in recycling correctly and educate them on how to do so.
Flagg, Julia A., and Diane C. Bates. "Recycling as a Result of "Cultural Greening"?" International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 17.4 (2016): 489-505. ProQuest. Web. 1 Apr. 2021.
“Video: Waste Audit Reviews Recycling Habits at Western Technical College.” Local Broadcast Video Content, CriticalMention, Inc., 2018.