By Courtney King
For years, eco-minded folks at Western have struggled to boost the campus recycling rate, which consistently lags behind the 19 percent average recycling rate of Colorado. The Centennial State, despite its reputation as an outdoorsy, ecologically minded place, ranks well below the 34 percent national average recycling rate.
But now, Western’s campus has a new sustainability initiative that could soon make its way to the rest of the Gunnison community: single-stream recycling. The new strategy allows the recycler to place all recyclable materials in a single receptacle without having to sort them. Decisionmakers at Western are hopeful that making recycling simpler and expanding the allowable materials will improve recycling across campus.
Western’s Sustainable Action Committee and Facilities Department intend to increase recycling rates by making the process quicker and more straightforward for those who could — but may not otherwise — recycle.
Even a staff member of the Clark Family School of Environment and Sustainability (ENVS), I became largely aware of this sustainability initiative through a poster from Waste Management, a major player in trash and recycling services across the U.S.
The company, with whom Western is working with on their pilot single-stream program, developed educational posters that have been distributed across Western’s campus.
Knowing that past recycling programs on and off campus couldn’t process materials like plastic coffee cups and paperboard, I assumed it was a generic flier, that some of the items listed as “recyclable” elsewhere couldn’t be processed here.
But after a conversation with some of the key individuals in the implementation of single-stream on campus, though, I was excitedly proven wrong about that notion — and dispelled of other myths.
The expert view on recycling
I spoke with Sherry Ford, the assistant vice president of campus operations and construction, and Jason Grosse, the campus custodial manager. Both Ford and Grose have been in their roles for about a year.
For most of that time, Western has lacked a full-time sustainability specialist to inform and implement the variety of planned and potential actions associated with Western’s Sustainability Commitment.
Ford and Grosse both display a clear optimism and passion about opportunities to promote sustainability, most recently through the introduction of single-stream recycling.
Ford says that Western’s Facilities Department is the “boots on the ground” and that it makes sense for her and Jason to be involved in sustainability initiatives because of the progress they can enact major changes to campus operations.
With an immediate focus on increasing campus’ recycling rate — which have hovered between 8 and 12 percent the last several years — Ford hopes to bring about a culture shift and a wider adoption of sustainability initiatives across campus.
“It isn’t just [about] Facilities, it’s the [whole] campus community,” she notes.
Her and Grosse are hopeful that such increases will be seen soon. In the early weeks of the single-stream pilot program, which began back in September, there’s evidence suggesting that more material is being recycled.
The duo is not done working, though. Ford and Grosse have been involved in public outreach efforts, including an open-house to answer questions about single-stream and regular engagement with the students, staff, and faculty involved in the Sustainable Action Committee.
Their foremost goal is to educate the Western community, especially by dispelling popular myths about single-stream and recycling in general.
Getting recycling right
I’ve always thought I was a knowledgeable recycler, perhaps providing some unsolicited advice. But speaking with Ford and Grosse, I realized that some of my own beliefs about recycling were ill-informed and largely incomplete.
Jason points out, for example, that plastics and metals are recycled via melting. Ensuring a container is clean doesn’t mean you have to thoroughly scrub it out or put it through a dishwasher, especially as “water is a precious resource”, particularly here in Colorado.
Don’t leave food in a container, he says, but a quick rinse will do just fine. Just as surprising to me was the fact that most companies in Colorado can and do recycle pizza boxes, even if they’re used and oil-stained (editor’s note: I worked on campus recycling for several years, and I also thought oil-stained boxes were beyond saving).
The days of trying to obtain perfect compliance in consumer recycling may soon be gone (thanks to improvements in cleaning and sorting technology), with fewer rules hopefully leading to greater usage of recycling.
The primary role, objective, and touted benefit of single-stream recycling is that it makes sorting easier on the person doing the recycling, lowering their time burden. The fewer steps involved in a process and the less explanation it requires, the more likely individuals are to participate.
So, what about the cereal boxes — the oh so common paperboard? Jason confirmed that materials like paperboard, which aren’t currently recycled by Gunnison County can now be recycled at Western, in addition to previously unrecyclable plastics #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7.
Grosse hopes this change will increase overall recycling rates by decreasing uncertainty about recyclables. He notes that if students are unsure of whether individual items can be recycled or not, or worried that one wrong item will lead the whole lot to be disposed of, they’re likely to opt for the waste bin instead. Conveying up-to-date information about the new system to a wide campus audience, then, is critical.
To single stream and beyond
The single-stream initiative officially began on Sept. 1, 2023, with a year-long contract. Ford and Grosse will receive data from Waste Management and decide if it’s a program they want to continue next August.
They’re already seeing reduced recycling and waste costs for the university – as well as interest in pursuing a similar plan from the city of Gunnison, led by Master’s of Environmental Management (MEM) alumnus and current Gunnison mayor Diego Plata.
Lack of correspondence about how and what to recycle could lead to some confusion, so, hopefully, local governments will adopt similar initiatives in the near future (indeed, the Town of Crested Butte similarly transitioned to single stream with Waste Management just over a year ago).
As they go through this pilot year, Ford and Grosse are happy to review factual information that helps them and others decide whether this is a cost-effective, scientifically and sustainably-sound approach.
They also need some help from the Western community to ensure that recycling on campus reaches its fullest potential. While considered “single stream,” the program will benefit from some sorting of materials before they leave Western for WM’s sorting and processing facilities.
Interested students who may have volunteered to promote sustainability initiatives should be particularly excited: These are paid positions!
The duo, who both attended Western, note that sustainability is the fourth-ranked reason why students said they were interested in attending the university. Now, it’s time for Western students to demonstrate their sustainability chops by fully embracing single-stream recycling.
Embracing the 3Rs
Sherry and Jason also make sure to note that it’s, “not just the recycle, it’s the reduce and reuse” parts of the 3Rs that are relevant to pay attention to, with FreeCycle — the free student thrift store featuring gently used clothing, gear, appliances, books, and more — mentioned as a prime example on Western’s campus.
FreeCycle, located in the basement of Ute Hall, runs by the principle that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and has become a vital asset in preventing the disposal of piles of clothing and dozens of mini-fridges on move-out day.
The Western community can also look forward to initiatives beyond recycling. Some ongoing, inspired by broader environmental efforts in the Gunnison Valley include replacing exterior lights with more efficient LEDs, and (on the longer term) moving towards more solar energy on campus — all steps toward Western’s commitment to half its carbon footprint by 2035. These initiatives will be overseen by Campus Operations, who aim to hire a new sustainability specialist in the near future.
Jason is living proof that while large corporations and institutions may bear the greatest environmental responsibility, becoming truly sustainable means educating and engaging the whole community.
His role at Western is reflective of his off-the-grid home and lifestyle — our conversation ended with Grosse excitedly relaying the high R-value (a measure of insulative properties) of his home’s ceiling and walls and explaining that his efforts are an expression of hope for a better future for his kids and grandkids.
“Gunnison is home, [and] I just think we can do better,” he concludes.