Laughlin Ashe has been on the second floor of Boatwright Memorial Library all night.
The yellow lights flood over his shoulders, casting a fuzzy shadow across his first-year seminar paper about the Chinese economy. It’s finals week, and the sea of students occupying the chairs around him has drained to just a few survivors.
He stretches back in his chair and lets his eyes wander around the room, landing on a facilities worker.
“I saw a staff member come in, pick up the recycling bin, turned it over into the trash bin, then [he] took out the trash bag, tied it, and walked out with it,” Ashe said.
Ashe witnessed this again later the same week, prompting him to seek an explanation. He sent an email to Rob Andrejewski, director of sustainability, detailing what he saw.
Andrejewski’s response revealed how recycling at the University of Richmond works.
“It may be important to know that the recycling center will not take our recyclables if they are seen to be ‘contaminated,’” Andrejewski said in an email. “That means if food waste or other items have been thrown away with the recyclables they will not be accepted and are seen as trash… Sometimes when they see a contaminated recycling bin, they will bag it with the trash because it does not meet the recycling center’s requirements.”
Ashe observed not only a failed recycling attempt on UR’s campus, but also a lack of education and conversation around recycling habits.
This lack of education motivated the creation of Rethink Waste, a new campus-wide sustainability plan, which starts this week.
This first phase of Rethink Waste is a complete overhaul of the current recycling system, aiming to provide students with the convenience and understanding required in order to recycle correctly. Rethink Waste uses a fitting tagline: “know where it goes.”
In an interview with The Collegian, Andrejewski explained how Rethink Waste addresses the issue of inconsistent recycling habits.
“It’s not consistent nationwide how recycling works, it’s not even consistent statewide how recycling works, so we need to say, 'this is how it works here,'” Andrejewski said.
Students will notice a variety of recycling changes around campus, including new signs and “co-mingled” bins. Wherever a blue recycling bin is on campus, it will be accompanied by a black landfill bin.
Office of Sustainability interns will also be tabling in the commons to educate students about common recycling errors, furthering Rethink Waste’s educational aspect. The game will reveal that items thought to be recyclable, such as plastic straws and paper towels, should be disposed of in landfill bins.
“What we’re focusing on right now is really giving people as much access to recycling as possible,” Andrejewski said.
Andrejewski said items are only sent to recycling facilities if they can be resold as raw materials, perpetuating the commodities market.
“Things that are manufactured are not manufactured with ease of disposal in mind,” Andrejewski said. “They are manufactured for you to buy them.”
Caroline Jones, WC '18, president of GreenUR, commented on another side of the problem. “Our recycler only accepts 10 percent of contamination,” Jones said. “So, if there’s over 10 percent, which as you can imagine happens a lot, it completely ruins it.”
GreenUR is a student group that organizes environmental campaigns and events to promote sustainability. Jones has been passionate about sustainability since high school and joined GreenUR during her freshman year. She hopes to initiate more campus sustainability efforts, ranging from more environmentally friendly tableware at Lou’s Cafe to solar-powered charging at the tables outside of Boatwright Library.
Jones said she understands that recycling on UR’s campus must become a cultural habit in order to make a lasting impression on the community.
“I think creating that culture is up to student groups like [GreenUR] who get the word out there,” Jones said. She also stressed the impact professors can have, since they’re "reaching a small group of students each semester.”
Andrejewski agreed that a shift in cultural norms is the key in achieving UR’s future sustainability goals.
“For me, it’s not about the items, and it’s not about recycling. It is about behavior change and culture change,” Andrejewski said.
When phase one of Rethink Waste is complete, the Office of Sustainability plans to incorporate composting and sourcing more recyclables as phase two of the sustainability plan.
By 2050, UR aims to emit zero greenhouse gases, or carbon neutrality, so all energy would be sourced from renewables or offset by the creation of clean energy.
This Saturday, the University of Albany faces off against the University of Richmond in a Rethink Waste Football Game, part of the national Gameday Recycling Challenge. Volunteers will be helping spectators recycle correctly in the hopes of sending as little waste as possible to the landfill.
A cultural change towards a more conscious recycling mindset hinges on the success of events like these.
“We are trying to elevate the concept of the stuff — we no longer want to think about it in the same way we think about any societal issue,” Andrejewski said. “And what better place than a university to do that?”
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