We Mean Green... or Do We?
Across the UNT campus, pairs of squatty, blue and green waste bins urge people to “start something green”, “minimize contamination” and offer them a place to toss trash and recyclables responsibly.
These Big Belly solar-powered trash and recycling compactors are symbols of UNT’s greater commitment to sustainability, but a recent investigation suggests that those efforts may not be as effective as they appear. UNT Grounds and Recycling Manager Erik Trevino commented on his frustration with the state of the recycling industry.
“I worry more about the back end than the front end,” said Trevino. “The stuff we’re sending off- is it even being recycled?”
Almost two years after China banned the import of most foreign waste, the market for U.S. recyclables slowed to a crawl. In March of 2019, the shock waves hit Denton when the city learned that some plastics and glass were being landfilled by the recycling company, Pratt Recycling Inc. due to poor quality and a stunted market.
UNT’s recycling goes to the City of Denton, who then uses Pratt Recycling to sort and sell its recyclables. In a May 7 email, Shawn State of Pratt Recycling updated the city on the status of the materials in question.
“There is not an easy answer on [plastics] #3-7,” State said via email. “We have two end users we believe will buy the material today and keep it out of landfill. If we are told they will not take [plastics] #3-7 in the future, Pratt will notify the city within 48 hours via email, so we can discuss what is occurring and why.”
In the email, State also said Pratt found a buyer in Houston to take a test shipment of glass on May 7, although he noted that “source separation” may be the only long-term solution to Denton’s glass problems.
So far, neither Pratt Recycling nor the City of Denton have responded to requests for an update on the status of glass recycling beyond the May correspondence.
Setting aside the end stages of the recycling process, UNT was ranked 187 out of 218 schools that participated in an eight-week Recyclemania competition’s “per capita classic” category. That ranks UNT behind ten other Texas universities both larger and smaller than UNT.
What’s more is that the eight weeks of the competition reporting take place in February and March, right around the time Pratt Recycling was occasionally diverting some plastics to the landfill.
The National Wildlife Federation’s Senior Manager for Higher Education Kristy Jones, who works on Recyclemania said this information would not likely affect UNT’s ranking in the competition as only the top ranked schools go through a rigorous verification process.
“Of course we want people to recycle properly, right?” Jones said. “But we really want the emphasis on reduction.”
Jones called the halt of solid waste to China “a blessing in disguise”, saying that it forced people to recognize a problem and shift focus to reducing waste in the first place. She estimated that only about half of campuses know what happens to their own recycling once it’s hauled away. That’s why Recyclemania has opened up categories aimed at zero waste efforts.
Interestingly, the reporting process for Recyclemania’s zero waste competitions is something Erik Trevino and UNT Energy Engineer, Josh Lukins said is overdue at UNT: a trash audit.
Arguably the most tedious thing about recycling, a trash audit would measure by building, mass and volume the amount of recycling compared to the amount of trash sent to the landfill. An audit would also take into account the number of recyclables that wind up in a trash bin meant for the landfill. This process would evaluate the effectiveness of the university’s recycling efforts increase transparency, and accountability.
“The last one that was done was a one building waste audit in- I want to say 2009 or 2008 in all the records that I could find,” Lukins said.
“We probably need to do an audit every year or so,” said Trevino.
In spite of hinderances in the global recycling market, sustainability advocates at UNT like Lukins and Trevino search for ways to create less waste on campus.
Trevino, who also manages grounds and landscaping at UNT began efforts to turn landscaping waste into mulch, and recently received a We Mean Green Fund grant to expand the project. His department recycles ink cartridges rather than trashing them. The metal frames that display signs all over campus with event announcements and student org flyers are reused instead of being recycled or thrown out.
Both Trevino and Lukins recognized the need to focus on reducing campus waste before it winds up in one of the friendly blue and green bins all over campus.
“We understand that we need to do a better job of marketing it and talking to people,” Trevino said. “I know that we have not captured the right way to do that.”
UNT recycling showed up to first flight week this year to talk about waste, but many students didn’t seem to be enthusiastic about stopping by a booth about recycling, according to Trevino.
“People say they care about it, but…” Trevino said.
“…up to the point that they actually have to do something.” Lukins said, finishing the thought.