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Following Greening Princeton study, U. to streamline recycling process

Students at residential colleges will no longer have to sort their recyclable trash. The rest of campus is expected to follow suit by the end of 2014.

Unlike the University’s current recycling system, which requires waste to be separated into paper, cans and bottles and “remaining trash,” single-stream recycling only distinguishes between contaminated and non-contaminated materials, Greening Princeton co-president Misha Semenov ’15 said. As a result, any recyclable waste that does not contain food or moisture, including plastic, cans and bottles, will be disposed of in a single bin. These changes will be implemented in the residential colleges before the end of the semester.

Although the University has considered making this transition for several years, Building Services agreed to implement single-stream recycling last December during a meeting with Greening Princeton, a student-led environmental organization.

Greening Princeton presented recycling data from its month-long pilot program in Edwards and 1939 Halls during the meeting, and the data revealed that overall recycling went up from 57 percent to 85 percent after the dorms switched to single-stream. Residents of the two halls were educated about the change through informative stickers, emails and door-to-door communication, and 100 percent of the 46 students surveyed said they preferred the single-stream system.

“Before this, there was widespread confusion about how to recycle. The fact that within three weeks we were able to go from a fairly bad recycling rate to a fairly good one is impressive,” Semenov said, adding that the organization’s target recycling rate is around 90 percent.

Semenov noted that when Greening Princeton first suggested the transition to Director of Building Services Jonathan Baer, Baer was not enthusiastic at all.

“Half a year ago it was unthinkable,” Semenov added, citing a lack of resources and general skepticism about the project.

Even though the University’s trash disposal outlet has been accepting single-stream recycling for years, the University did not make the transition before because it was concerned about the viability of a single-stream system, Director of the Office of Sustainability Shana Weber explained.

“We had heard from a number of other institutions that switching to single-stream containers doesn’t necessarily result in a higher recycling rate unless you have a lot of effort around communication and educating the community,” Weber said. Although the University probably would have made the transition in the near future, she explained, Greening Princeton was critical in igniting the change.

“It’s not enough to just put up new container labels or flyers. There actually has to be human involvement in the transition for it to be successful, and Greening Princeton did a really great job with that,” she added.

The Office of Sustainability is compensating students for their communication efforts. Although Weber said that relabeling receptacles across campus will carry a hefty price tag, Baer said that the project would not be a financial burden.

“We know that the less waste we generate, the more money we’re going to save,” he explained. “This is good business.”

Baer also noted that the University has consistently produced less waste over the past several years despite an expanding student body. The combined amount of the University’s municipal and medical waste went down by over 20 percent between 2001 and 2013, a Building Services study shows.

“The energy and passion that Misha had pushed this to become a higher priority for us,” Baer explained. “I can’t say enough how much we have appreciated Misha and his team and all the energy and the time and the passion that they put into supporting this.”

The single-stream recycling system was initiated at both Mathey and Wilson Colleges this week, Semenov said. He added that Greening Princeton would be expanding the program gradually to ensure that students are informed about the change.

“We’re Princeton students, so we’re really busy and no one really has time to think about recycling,” Mathey residential college adviser Eric Shullman ’15 said. “We have busy lives, so it’s just easier to throw whatever you want in the can,” he added, referring to the streamlined nature of single-stream recycling.

Although possible contamination from food and liquid substances remains a concern, Semenov said that a mild degree of contamination should not be problematic, and he hopes to overcome this obstacle through efficient communication with students.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly described a campus office as having attended the meeting that led to the streamlining of campus recycling procedures. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error. 

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