Spilling the tea on the U's number one contaminant to recycling
According to Keith Soster, director of Student Engagement at Michigan Dining, Starbucks cups commonly used for coffee and tea specifically contaminate University of Michigan recycling bins most frequently.
Angela Porta, outreach and zero waste coordinator at Recycle Ann Arbor, said the city of Ann Arbor is not able to recycle these cups either, citing reasons such as food contamination and the wax lining to the cup.
“They are lined with an extremely thin layer of plastic that is tightly fused to the paper to prevent leaking and it is very difficult to separate that plastic from the paper,” she explained.
In addition to the 46,002 students at the University of Michigan campus, there are 27,595 faculty and staff working on campus as of Nov. 2017 and 20,091 total hospital faculty and staff — creating the potential for the use of a lot of cups at UM.
The waste produced by students and faculty reflect the basic materials used daily, including paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, coffee cups and paper plates. The University has worked alongside local organizations to mitigate the negative effects of waste, partnering with the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority, which operates between five municipalities and sorts through the trash generated by the University.
According to Tracy Artley, waste reduction and recycling program manager for the Office of Campus Sustainability, recycling on the institutional level has had increased standards and thus requires education and consistency.
“Manufacturers have a lower and lower tolerance for contamination — for non-recyclables ending up in there,” Artley said. “That’s a cost to them, they have to sort those out, and if they missed it, it could ruin the whole batch of what they’re recycling. Unfortunately, some people do what we call wish-cycling, where they put things in the recycling bin hoping that because they put it there, it’ll get recycled.”
Because of the University’s close relationship with WWRA, consistent communication allows the Office of Campus Sustainability to be notified if a batch is contaminated, and they can subsequently trace the bin back to a certain building or department. This way, the office is able to directly address consistent recycling errors at certain buildings.
Artley also explained how economic factors weigh heavily on the lack of recycling for paper products, especially coffee cups.
“Recycling is this great environmental effort, but at heart, it’s an economic effort,” she said. “When we recycle things, they get sorted out and set out for recycling. They are being recycled for purchasing by a manufacturer who wants to make something new out of that. With coffee cups, there’s no company, at least around the state, that wants these paper coffee cups.”
Artley described various efforts put forth by companies such as Starbucks and Tim Hortons to implement paper cup recycling strategies. None have been fully successful. Recent reports estimate 16 billion coffee cups are used each year.
Soster was an integral part of the University-wide composting initiative, which was implemented two and a half years ago. Residential dining began its shift to pre-consumer composting for one semester, a process in which kitchen staff members were trained to compost the cooking materials used. After this, the next step was to educate students who use the dining halls.
During the transition to compostable packaging, a company called World Centric helped the University acquire approximately 200 types of compostable packaging, replacing the existing, unregulated packaging for cafe foods and drinks with compostable material which can be mistaken for plastic, but is in fact compostable.
Soster highlighted the implementation of zero-waste events across campus. More than 300 events were held in the program’s first year, ranging from banquets on campus to freshman convocations in the past several years. Soster affirmed that these types of initiatives are effective in displaying that full composting and recycling of materials at events is attainable, even at a large-scale.
“I think its there’s a lot of communication and education needed to uphold this process, but once people get it it’s really easy,” Soster said.
According to the waste management data kept by Soster’s office, in the 2016 fiscal year, the University managed almost 863,000 pounds of compost, more than 2,000,000 pounds of recycling and roughly 2,823,000 pounds of landfill waste. Pounds composted rose to more than 1,147,000 pounds in the 2017 fiscal year and more than 1,434,000 pounds in the 2018 fiscal year.
The Michigan Dining office closely monitors student residential buildings throughout the process of implementation to see which methods prove more effective for students and carry into their future behavior.
“One of our broad campus goals prioritizes community,” Soster said. “For me, community means culture. We need to change habits and behaviors. The education piece is working, and we just need to keep at it. The potentially frustrating part is that we get new freshman every year, we’re always going to have to train people. But once we get the students on board, it’s pretty much a habit for everybody. Then the faculty and staff will adopt it, and we really need more faculty participation.”
LSA senior Greg Cogut, administrative chair of the Student Sustainability Initiative Board, highlighted the University’s consistent effort to control waste production through its various student-focused programs.
“The fact that the University has grown and we haven’t proportionally increased our waste is a good testament to our waste reduction initiatives,” Cogut said. “We have a long way to go, but we are doing a very good job. The University has invested resources in programs, and Graham and The Office of Campus Sustainability have worked to innovate and create change.”
He also described the continuing need for student focus as international policy presents a need for U.S waste-management innovation. For example, the inability to recycle coffee cups is not specific to the University. According to a BBC statistic, in the United Kingdom, more than 99.75 percent of coffee cups are not recycled, a statistic that is mirrored in many countries. Cogut cited China’s ban on low-grade plastic last January. The ban supported Chinese effort to improve domestic public health and environment.
Before the ban, China processed more than half of the world’s exports of waste paper, metals and used plastic. The U.S and other Western countries are now forced to manage the production and use of these low-grade recyclables. Despite facing these new issues, Cogut remains optimistic for University efforts.
“As we try to cultivate a culture of sustainability and environmental awareness, we’ll continue making progress,” Cogut said.