Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Pratt Envirolutions Students Bring Recycling Bins to Campus

Posted 07 Nov 2012 / 0

EnvirobuttonCulminating over three semesters of work, Pratt’s Envirolutions student club chose Election Day to celebrate the launch of eleven new recycling bins on the Brooklyn campus grounds. President Schutte joined students to cut the ribbons on the new bins, which were purchased by the 2011-2012 Student Government Association (SGA). A good-sized crowd of students, faculty, and staff gathered on a cold day to mark what we hope will be the first of many student-initiated improvements to the sustainability of Pratt’s campuses.

2012-11-07aPresident Schutte welcomes the new bins to campus

Why all the pomp and circumstance for a few recycling bins? To understand why this student-led initiative was such an accomplishment, you need to understand a little bit of Pratt’s history…

To those who first arrive on campus, it appears that Pratt does not recycle. Prior to the release of the new recycling bins, the grounds were mostly dotted by a series of large black trash receptacles. A few green receptacles with a nice-looking design punctuate Pratt’s new clock outside the amphitheater between East and South halls, but these are neither labeled nor used exclusively for recycling. Inside Pratt’s buildings there are intermittently-placed blue recycling bins, but if you watch how these are dealt with by the housekeeping staff, they seem to all go into the same bags with other waste. There’s no clear signage anywhere that helps members of the Pratt community understand what Pratt’s recycling policy is, and to find out this information you need to do some pretty deep searching on the Pratt website.

When I first arrive at Pratt, I was a bit surprised that sorting of recyclables was not part of Pratt’s campus culture. Just arriving from Stony Brook University on Long Island, I had gotten pretty used to seeing large sorting receptacles that allowed members of the campus community to separate plastic/metal from paper from general non-recyclable waste. This on-campus separation of waste paralleled my home practice, as all of the townships of Long Island that I had lived in required separation of recyclables.

During my first year at Pratt, I got involved in Sustainable Pratt, an on-campus group composed mostly of faculty that was the precursor to the current-day Pratt Environmental Coalition. Sustainable Pratt discussed a great variety of on-campus needs, but recycling was a recurrent theme. As new faculty joined the group, you would not need to wait long before you would hear the same complaint: “why doesn’t Pratt recycle?”. To be honest, it got a bit tedious after awhile: the same questions asked with no real answer as to how to make things better. So why was nothing done? I think in part this stemmed from an attitude on the part of faculty (myself included) that our suggestions ought to automatically be listened to by those with the power to do something about our recycling policy. It is reasonable but perhaps not realistic to think that one’s own good ideas will be acted upon by the powers-that-be. Whether or not anyone was listening to faculty concerns, nothing changed about Pratt’s recycling policy over several years, and faculty never went beyond talking about the problem.

The Envirolutions club predates my current involvement as advisor. The original advisor was former faculty member and Pratt alumnus Noah King, who worked with interested students (mostly from the Industrial Design department) to form the club. In its first years the club tackled the recycling problem, initiating a series of discussions with Tony Gelber (Director of Administrative Sustainability). Tony had also been involved in Sustainable Pratt, so he had heard these concerns before. Through discussions with Tony, it eventually came to light that Pratt does have a recycling policy (when it was adopted is still not entirely clear to me): our carting company, Five Star, post-sorts our co-mingled waste and ‘recovers’ recyclable trash that can be sold to companies that repurpose recycled material. Envirolutions students made a somewhat oblique attempt at explaining to the campus community that Pratt ‘does recycle’ (if you look carefully, you might still see vestiges of this campaign on trash receptacles in the form of black-and-white vinyl stickers), but there never was a comprehensive and effective campaign to inform the campus of Pratt’s post-sorting policy.

So what is post-sorting? Post-sorting is a method of recovering recyclables from a single waste stream. Rather than ask those who produce the waste to sort it into recyclable and non-recyclable bins, the post-sorting approach allows waste producers to throw all of their garbage in the same place. Pratt is not alone in the use of post-sorting: New York City’s public waste receptacles (those found on almost every street corner) are apparently also post-sorted to recover recyclables. That the city does not pre-sort street waste makes sense: post-sorting seems like the appropriate response to waste collection situations in which waste producers cannot be relied upon to properly sort their garbage (one assumes that multiple-stream receptacles would not be used properly on the streets — whether or not this is true is hard to know).

Post-sorting can vary radically in its sophistication. Some carting companies bring unsorted waste to high-tech facilities that use a combination of magnets, air flow, densitometers, and finally human labor to separate waste that needs to go to the landfill or incinerator from material that can be recycled. But such facilities are rare, and most post-sorters rely solely on human labor to recover recyclable materials from garbage bags by hand. This appears to be what happens to Pratt’s garbage when it is brought to Five Star’s transfer stations.

I think that it is important to consider the costs and benefits of post-sorting as a recycling policy. The main benefit is that this form of recycling is very easy to institute at the producer end: there is no need to set up separate receptacles, and there is no worry about whether individuals properly sort their waste. This efficiency at the producer side is counterbalanced by a number of inefficiencies on the collector side. First, co-mingled waste requires additional labor to separate. Whereas waste-producing individuals only need to apply a little bit of mindful attention to where they deposit their waste, the workers who post-sort this material need to rip open each and every bag to pull out by hand those materials that can be recycled. This is tremendously inefficient from a labor perspective, as the failure of the producer to perform a simple task (separating recycling from true garbage) necessitates a great expenditure of labor at the collector end. There are also serious costs in terms of waste recovery efficiency: because all waste is co-mingled, much of the material that might have been recycled is rendered unrecoverable. If you need a scenario to help understand this inefficiency, imagine a single unfinished coffee being thrown into a receptacle filled with paper: when the workers at the post-sorting facility open this bag, they will have to send it all to the landfill, as the paper will now be covered with coffee.

While those who ask can — with enough persistence — learn that Pratt does post-sort its waste, the Institute has not widely publicized this fact. Communication is a constant challenge within large institutions, but I have always been confused about why Pratt’s recycling policy is not better disseminated to the community, especially when so many people ask “why doesn’t Pratt recycle?”. I am glad that Pratt does have some means of recovering at least some recyclable material from its garbage, as simply sending it all to the landfill would be much worse. So if we are proud of our sustainable initiatives, why is this particular policy so poorly communicated? This is a vexing question to which I have never gotten a clear answer.

The history depicted above provides you with a sense of the environment that welcomes new students. They arrive, most used to sorting their waste back at home, and come to realize that there is no such ethic or practice on campus. Many students chose Pratt based on its reputation for innovation in sustainability, and enjoy the many Pratt courses that challenge students to think about how an ethic of sustainability can be incorporated into the ‘making’ that most Pratt majors require. But when it comes to actual on-campus practices, to the newly-arrived student there appears to be a disconnect between what we teach and what we do. Eventually discomfort with this disconnect progresses to acceptance and maybe even cynicism, as Pratt’s focus on ‘making’ pulls students away from everyday practices.

What I really appreciate about the kind of student that is attracted to the Envirolutions club is that these are not people who fit that typical mold. They do not allow themselves to make this progression. The students who choose to donate some of their very-limited free time to Envirolutions do not simply accept unreasonable policies, and they are not prone to cynicism. I think that these two key differences in perspective are what have allowed these students to push Pratt towards pre-sorting its recyclables.

About two years ago, student members of the club began asking questions, researching, and thinking about Pratt’s recycling policy. They first had to re-learn what Pratt’s recycling policy was, meeting with Tony Gelber to better understand what was known about how Five Star’s post-sorting works. Tony talked to students about his visit to Five Star and how waste is separated into different streams by workers. This information is also available on Five Star’s website. However, there are a lot of questions about the efficiency of this process that the club was not able to answer. What percentage of Pratt’s potentially-recyclable material actually gets recycled? How much labor is required to perform the post-sorting separation? How much recyclable material is lost due to contamination? And how much additional cost does Pratt incur because it post-sorts rather than pre-sorts? No one on campus seemed to know the answers to these critical questions.

In the Spring of 2011 club members set out to get some answers for themselves. The first project Envirolutions members undertook was the production of a short video. As club members became more aware of how Pratt actually recycles its waste, they began to wonder what the Pratt community knew about this policy. The striking results are summarized in the short video below:

Almost none of the members of the campus community the club interviewed knew that Pratt even recycled. This is not surprising given how little this policy is explained by Pratt as an institution, but it is a little sad. After performing extensive interviews with members of the campus community, it became clear that the impression of Pratt’s sustainability in terms of recycling was actually far worse than the reality. Again, it is hard to understand why the powers-that-be would not want to at least make it clear that Pratt does have a waste policy that leads to some recovery of recyclables.

The club then asked the question “regardless of how well Pratt’s recycling policy is understood by members of the community, is it the right policy?”. To answer this question, information was needed. Some of this information could not be obtained. For instance, there was no way for students to find out what percentage of our waste is actually recycled by Five Star (only Facilities can request this information, and even if they did it would be hard to figure out how to assess the validity of this data without some sort of third-party verification). There is also no way to really know how much labor is required to sort through Pratt’s waste, or what working conditions the workers performing this task experience. Finally, there was no way for students to know how much money (if any) Pratt might save (by lowered carting costs) or lose (by increased costs associated with implementing pre-sorting) by changing its recycling policy. With so much information out of reach, Envirolutions decided to tackle the one question they could answer: how much of our potentially recyclable material is being sent to the landfill because it is contaminated by other waste?

2012-11-07bEnvirolutions club member Laura Lighty surveys a trash bin outside of East Hall

Working in conjunction with NYPIRG, Envirolutions students fanned out over the Brooklyn campus to pull garbage bags out of receptacles and survey their contents. To understand what our potential and actual recycling rate might be, students assessed several criteria:

  1. The percentage of waste that needs to be landfilled;
  2. The percentage of recyclable material; and
  3. The degree of contamination of recyclable material.

The results of this survey were pretty conclusive. Although 67.3% of the material is recyclable (37.5% paper, 29.8% glass/metal), most of this recyclable material is heavily contaminated (on average 3.67 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most contaminated). Because Pratt relies on post-sorting, a very large proportion of our potentially recyclable material is being contaminated. This is not an efficient way to recycle.

2012-11-07cA map of all the trash bins surveyed by Envirolutions and NYPIRG members

Student concerns went beyond the issue of how efficiently recyclable material is recovered. They were also concerned about the educational message sent by Pratt’s recycling policy. What message does it send when students are not asked to sort their waste and that waste is instead sorted by low-wage laborers? Is this the way we want to teach students to behave? Are these the kind of ‘green jobs’ we want to create? And if students are not being asked to perform the most basic of sustainable behaviors, how will that impact their incorporation of sustainable practices into their design work? The general conclusion in the club was that Pratt’s everyday practices need to reflect the sustainable design principles we teach about in our classrooms.

BagMonsterAlex Morpurgo was the bag monster. Beware the mounds of recyclable material that may rise from the landfills!

But how do you make pre-sorting happen? How do you prove that it can work? How do you show that Pratt’s campus community wants to sort their recyclables? Without substantial institutional mechanisms for incorporating student ideas and input into campus planning priorities, the students were left without much of a voice. Asking for pre-sorting had not worked, for Envirolutions or for any other campus constituency. The solution turned out to be rather ingenious: because the students value pre-sorting, they would express that value by purchasing a few recycling bins to place around the campus grounds. This initial ‘seeding’ of recycling bins would hopefully inspire those with the power to make pre-sorting uniform across the campus. Early this year, the Student Government Association decided to allocate money to purchase ten receptacles, and Envirolutions offered to work with Facilities to select the receptacle model and design (and also pay for the printing of) appropriate signage to advertise that these receptacles are for pre-sorting recyclable material.

2012-11-07eEnvirolutions students celebrate Green Week with the first of the new outdoor recycling bins

This sounds like not a lot to do, but it actually took substantial work on the part of students. Selecting a receptacle that complemented Pratt’s well-manicured grounds meant close consultation with Facilities. By the time that Green Week rolled around in mid-March, a sample receptacle had been purchased by Facilities (a ‘bonus’ bin bringing the total to eleven). Data from the earlier survey of existing receptacles allowed students to make recommendations to Facilities as to where the new recycling bins should be placed. Students also had to learn how to negotiate the bureaucracy so that the money provided by the SGA could find its way to Facilities and be used to purchase the bins. By the end of May, there were ten shiny new green receptacles waiting on a loading dock on the Brooklyn Campus. Finally, Envirolutions had to come up with a design for bin signage that made it clear that these receptacles — unlike any others on campus — were exclusively for recyclable material. In June the club paid for decals to be made, and everything was in place for the new receptacles to be launched.

Bin Signage_Dont PrintRecycling bin signage designed by Envirolutions club member Rhett Bradbury

At this point in the project it would have been easy to just let Facilities place the bins on campus, but Envirolutions students decided to wait. What they realized was that because Pratt has for so long had no on-campus culture of sorting recyclable material, simply releasing the labeled bins to campus would not be enough. The release of the bins had to be made into an event, marking a slight but crucial change in campus practices, and the campus would need to be educated about the initiative. Given how much work was involved in the resulting campaign, it was fortunate that as the Fall semester began Envirolutions‘ ranks swelled, the club almost doubling in size due to an influx of new members (many of them in their first year at Pratt).

Throughout this semester, club members developed a multi-faceted campaign to get the word out about recycling. They expanded their use of the club website plus its Facebook and Twitter accounts to reach other students. They designed a set of posters to educate about how recycling is and will be done on Pratt’s campus. A fun video was conceived and produced to educate the campus about the change in recycling policy. And a ribbon-cutting ceremony was planned to maximize visibility of the launch. A brilliant insight from a new club member led to an overall theme of the campaign: “Where I’m From, We Recycle”. This slogan expressed the feelings of many new students, who are baffled by Pratt’s lack of a coherent recycling program.

The reaction to the launch has been really positive. The club has received a lot of support from students and faculty, and people seem excited that Pratt now has at least partial pre-sorting of recyclable material. Students in Manhattan have already expressed the need for recycling bins on the other Pratt campus.

There is a part of me that has been slightly annoyed that students funded something that really should have come from Pratt’s Facilities division. If we are going to improve the sustainability of Pratt’s campus, we need the institute’s administration to implement programs that enable members of the community to behave in more sustainable ways. But for all these misgivings, I think that the work of SGA and Envirolutions has an undeniable brilliance to it: there is no arguing with the values of students who choose to spend their collective money on making Pratt’s campus more sustainable, especially when that money could have been spent on any number of more glamorous events for students.

After several years of working alongside students on this campaign, I have gotten a slightly better sense of why Pratt has not instituted a campus-wide pre-sorting policy. The primary reason is that there is skepticism about whether or not members of Pratt’s community can be trusted to properly separate their waste. If you invest heavily in a pre-sorting system and faculty, students, and staff are careless about where they throw their waste, this investment is wasted. It is hard to say whether this concern is reasonable, especially since Pratt has not engaged in a campaign to educate its community. That perhaps some of the few pre-sorting receptacles on campus are not respected is not really evidence for campus community apathy in regards to recycling: until there is a coherent education campaign asserting that pre-sorting is going on, it is not fair to judge current behavior. Now that Envirolutions and the SGA have placed these new recycling bins on campus, the next challenge is to educate members of the community about the importance of their proper use. If naysayers have suggested that the Pratt community is too apathetic about recycling to properly use these new bins, it is up to the whole community to prove these naysayers wrong. I suspect that Envirolutions will begin an education campaign soon, and will be monitoring these bins to see if they are being used properly.

It should be made clear that the placement of these few bins does not constitute a change in Pratt’s recycling policy. Obviously if pre-sorting were to be fully instituted, there would need to be a lot more bins placed on campus: most of Pratt’s grounds and indoor spaces still lack any form of presorting. Perhaps more importantly, there would need to be a change in the way that the housekeeping staff collects and stores waste, as we are currently only set up to place all waste into all-in-one dumpsters (the requirement that housekeeping change their procedures might also account for some of the inertia preventing a movement towards pre-sorting). We are a long way from realizing a more sustainable recycling policy. And for now, all the bags that are pulled out of the new recycling bins go into the same dumpster with the rest of Pratt’s unsorted waste. This might seem like a real tragedy, but it is actually progress: when those pre-sorted bags arrive at Five Star, presumably they are more easily and efficiently recycled because they are uncontaminated. This is the beauty of post-sorting: it does not preclude realizing benefits from pre-sorting, so long as the pre-sorted material arrives in separate bags. We do not have to make a sudden, quantum leap to pre-sorting: we could incrementally build infrastructure until the capacity for dedicated pre-sorting was achieved.

I cannot tell you where Envirolutions will go next with this project. I am not being secretive or coy: only the students decide, so only the students know. And if there is one thing that I have learned most from this campaign, it is that intentions are not what matters: dedicated action is what gets the job done. As the proud advisor of this really talented groups of students, I cannot wait to see where they direct their actions next.

You can check out a gallery of photos chronicling Envirolutions’ recycling campaign here:

A Major Post, Center for Sustainable Design Studies, Envirolutions, Greenwashing, Pratt Institute, Resource Consumption, Sustainability

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