Contaminants hurting SMU’s ability to recycle

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Cody Nordwall points out a bag of recycle next to the dumpsters in front of Hughes-Trigg Student Center on a Tuesday morning in early October. Immediately he notices a stained piece of paper with small bits of brown leaves surrounding it.

“There’s some coffee grounds,” SMU’s facility services A2L manager says, surmising that they came from the Einstein Bagel shop in Fincher Hall. “That’s not supposed to be there.”

The coffee grounds are just one of the contaminants found in recycling bins across campus that day. Among the other discoveries were empty popcorn bags, a mushroom residue-clad cardboard box, multiple bags with loose liquid, a Coca-Cola bottle with soda in it, Styrofoam cups, an Eos lip balm container, red and blue cupcakes and cooked pasta.

A bag of trash sits inside a recycle dumpster outside of the Mustang Parking Center. Also seen: a Coca-Cola bottle with liquid still in it. Photo credit: Patrick Engel

While items like plastic bottles and cardboard are recyclable, cardboard with food residue, glass bottles, and plastic bottles containing liquid like beer or soda are not recyclable, even though these items often wind up in recycling bins across campus. The liquid, residue or any other trash item can prevent an entire bag of recyclable goods from being properly recycled when it arrives at a sorting facility in Garland. In fact, that happens fairly often with recycle that comes from SMU.

The average person produces 4.3 pounds of refuse per day, according to the Center for Sustainability and Commerce at Duke University. Statistics provided by SMU Senior Grounds Manager Ann Allen show that SMU has produced 2,859 tons of waste in through the end of September, 391 of which is recycle. That means SMU’s diversion rate, which is the percentage of the total waste that is diverted to recycling centers) is 15 percent. About 85 percent of waste that SMU produces goes to a landfill. The diversion rate has topped 20 percent in only two of the nine months so far this year. Allen said the goal is to be around a 50 percent diversion rate.

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SMU has several major pickup locations on campus: behind the Umphrey Lee Center, the parking lot behind Wescott Field, the north end of the Meadows building, south end of Mustang Parking Center and in front of Hughes-Trigg.

SMU Custodial Manager Asad Munir explained the process of collecting recycle and moving it off campus. Each day, custodians empty recycle bins and place their contents in one of the pickup areas. Bins are emptied in three shifts. SMU’s recycle truck picks up the recycle from the pickup areas in late morning. When the truck fills up, it drives the recycle to Garland. From there, a worker sorts through each bag. If the bag contains too many contaminants, the whole bag is taken to the landfill and has to be thrown away.

Despite all the contaminants, students seem to be aware of and follow recycling procedures.

David Ahumada, an SMU junior, said his recycle bin at his off-campus apartment fills up with cans, plastic cups and cardboard each weekend. He’s careful that no trash, Styrofoam or large amounts of liquid get in the can.

“If there’s an appreciable amount of beer in a can, we’ll pour it out,” Ahumada said. “I feel like soda would be bad because of all the sugars. That’s also why you can’t recycle pizza boxes, because of the grease.”

Fellow student Jack Hemphill is also careful. He says every recyclable item in the blue bin in his dorm and pours out a bottle before he recycles it.

“I recycle pretty much everything in my dorm room,” Hemphill said.

Much of the contaminated recycle was found in the refuse areas behind Umphrey Lee Center and Moody Coliseum on the ride around campus with Nordwall. Each of those recycle dumpster is close to a major dining hall on campus, which Nordwall estimates is the source of contaminants like the muffins, pasta and residue-laden boxes.

Munir noted loose liquids in both recycling and trash bags are a major problem on football game days. Glass is more common on game days as well.

“Dump out the liquids, and then throw it in an appropriate container. That would go a long way,” Munir said.

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