Opinion guest column

MIT’s recycling rate in FY 2020 was 36%: here’s how we do better

A guide to improving recycling practices at MIT

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This flow diagram illustrates the general steps in the single-stream recycling process, as items move from recycling bins to the Materials Recovery Facility before becoming baled materials.
Courtesy of MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Rapid Response Group
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The How to Recycle poster, produced by MIT Facilities and MIT Recycles, provides a helpful summary of how to sort waste on our campus.
Courtesy of MIT Facilities and MIT Recycles
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Dining hall foods either feed students, go into the food waste bin, or are sent to those in need in the greater Boston community.
Courtesy of MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Rapid Response Group

How recycling works

After finishing your plastic bottle of juice, you walk over to the nearest bin, throw it in, and it’s gone from you. That is where our responsibility as consumers and generators of waste seems to end. However, by only considering actions up to that depositing point, we are prone to incorrect and ineffective waste disposal. 

Consider the bottle you just threw away: was there still liquid in it that could spill out? If so, it will degrade the paper products already in the bin making them non-recyclable. What about the paper-based coffee cup we recycled yesterday? Did it have a waxy plastic liner that is difficult to separate out, making it non-recyclable? In order to effectively recycle, we need to ask ourselves these questions every time we approach the bin.

Recycling in the U.S. first began in the 1980s, with consumers self-separating their recyclable waste into multiple streams. A decade later, single stream recycling was quickly adopted across the U.S., spurred in part by the increasing prevalence of different plastics. Since then, recycling rates increased from 16% of municipal solid waste in 1990 to 35% in 2017. While single-stream collection made recycling easier for the consumer by removing the onus of accurately sorting their own waste, it has induced confusion and loss of awareness of the recycling process. This has led to increasing rates of contamination in recycling waste streams. 

According to the National Waste & Recycling Association, about 25 percent of what ends up in the recycling bin is contaminated. Rachel Washburn, General Manager of Casella Recycling, notes that “when we are guessing and throwing those [non-recyclable items] into the mix, it’s actually hurting our process. It’s making recycling more expensive and it’s causing some contamination in our end products.” At the end of the day, the intention is to sell these end products - keeping the quality of our recycling waste high is integral to maximizing its value. 

Up until recently, China was the main buyer of American recycling waste. In 2017, China released a statement declaring it would no longer be accepting many materials, and that it would require a much lower degree of contamination in the recycling waste it continues to accept. In light of this abrupt change, as well as the large carbon footprint associated with recycling product transport, there has been much debate over the merits and prospects of recycling.

Some raise the point that plastics #3-7 can hardly be considered recyclable in the United States due to our ever-increasing plastics glut. As a result, they are commonly dumped, incinerated or landfilled. Culturally, less emphasis is placed on recycling metals, but materials like aluminum are arguably very important recyclables due to the high environmental impact of extracting new reserves. To learn more about this discussion, the NPR podcast So, Should We Recycle? and the Frontline documentary Plastic Wars are good starting points. 

What is not debatable, however, is that in order for recycling of materials to be effective, it must be profitable. To ensure this, we have to improve the quality of the good. The recovered recycled materials must be of high enough quality to make it a worthwhile investment for foreign countries to purchase (or, in the domestic case, for the U.S. to invest in national repurposing facilities). 

This goal leads us directly back to the individual. In order to reduce contamination in the stream, we must think critically about how our waste will move through the recycling process, and how its presence will affect the process and recyclability of surrounding objects. A basic understanding of the full material recovery process is essential for answering these questions.

The equipment used may vary across facilities, as well as waste flows and pick-up practices across communities. For this reason, it is important to research the recycling specifics for the waste streams you contribute to. For MIT community members, below we provide an overview of current recycling efforts and concerns at MIT and areas for further action.

Recycling at MIT

Our non-recyclable waste, organized into housing and non-housing streams, is mostly incinerated, but our recyclable goods take a variety of paths after leaving our campus. The general collection method of recyclables on MIT’s campus is single-stream recycling, where all recyclable goods are accepted in the same waste stream, regardless of their material. Recyclable waste from MIT is processed by Casella Waste Systems. This company uses a complex system of machines and staff workers to separate recyclables, then bales and sells them. Our compostables are processed by Waste Management Organics, which uses their CORe® process to convert organic matter into biogas and a slurry that can be processed in local water treatment plants. 

Although the work done on our recycled and composted waste after it leaves our campus is important, it’s critical that we know best practices on disposing waste in order to maintain the integrity of each stream. Because we use single-stream recycling, it is paramount that waste is correctly sorted. 

MIT has a plethora of waste management services. To name a few, MIT accepts batteries, books, clothing, and eWaste in addition to more conventional recyclables such as plastics 1, 2, and 5, aluminum and steel cans, and glass bottles. Additionally, MIT accepts compostable food waste. 

MIT waste streams from non-housing, housing, recycling, reuse, yard waste, and food have been tracked on a monthly and yearly basis by the Office of Sustainability and the Office of Recycling and Materials Management since 2010. This is displayed on the MIT Sustainability Datapool, a virtual, open-source platform that displays this data in an effort to foster transparency and accountability of waste management. The Datapool also has information on the life cycle of 19 different waste streams on our campus. It shows decreasing rates of recycling on our campus over the past decade, with fiscal year (FY, July–June) 2019 showing the lowest rate of 35% (a 15% decrease from the 10-year high in 2016). With increasing education and dedication to correct waste disposal, we can raise these numbers and exemplify our community commitment to protecting the environment. 

What you can do

We can’t cover everything you need to know to be the best recycler you can be in this article, but here are some tips you can incorporate to instantly improve our waste streams. 

  1. Take ~20 minutes to complete the Responsible Waste Disposal Practices training on Atlas. This will review MIT’s methods of waste collection and highlight the “rules” associated with what goes where.

  2. Look carefully at waste streams before you throw anything out! Unfortunately, the waste streams available on different parts of our campus are not consistent. Make sure you pay attention to what each bin collects and sort accordingly. 

  3. Be aware of “exceptions” to the recyclability of different items. There are many examples of this, so we’ll list a few, but please know that this is not exhaustive!

Improving our recycling waste streams also includes avoiding creating waste in the first place. When it comes to reducing waste, there are many easy things you can do, such as carry a reusable water bottle or a set of reusable utensils. When you get food in a compostable clamshell container, as is provided from many cafes on campus, remember to put it in the compost, not the recycling bin, especially if there is food residue on it! Ruth Davis, MIT’s Manager for Recycling and Materials Management, shared that when audits were done in the Student Center, it was found that “one of the biggest contaminants is clamshell containers.”

Ever run up and down three flights of stairs with a sticky apple core in your hands, searching desperately for a compost bin, while you’re late for your next lecture? Sounds like a personal problem... but public places can benefit from consistent, convenient, and well-labelled waste bins. Many of you may not even know that we have receptacles for recycling old tech, plastic film, batteries, and toner in Distributed Mail Centers across campus and the basement of the Stratton Student Center. These items cannot be thrown in single-stream recycling, and can pose environmental issues if discarded in the trash.

Does your office use a lot of coffee pods? How many Solo® Cups does your living group go through at parties? Do you find yourself throwing out used razors, contact lenses, and shampoo bottles? If so, your MIT dorm, lab, or office should consider partnering with Terracycle, a company that allows you to ship recyclable items that are not accepted at MIT. You can do this on your own, too - start a personal collection of products that they sponsor and ship them out when your box is full!

Now, let’s take a look at some of MIT’s current sustainability practices that you can take part in! If you’ve ever used reuse@mit.edu, freefood@mit.edu, or picked up an old monitor from the Stata Loading Dock, you know that MIT fosters a culture of reuse.

On the third Thursday of every month, Choose to Reuse is run in the Stata Center Lobby. Starting at 8:00 a.m, you can donate any clean, fully-functioning items that you don’t need anymore. From 11:00 a.m. to 12:20 p.m., you can pick up five items, and from 12:20 to 1:00 p.m., you can pick up any amount of items, all free of charge.

During finals week every year, Trash2Treasure collects approximately 400 boxes and bags of clothes, books, and miscellaneous knick-knacks (that’s about 20,000 items!) from donation boxes placed in all undergraduate dorms and Tang Hall. Clothing is donated to the MIT Women’s League; the rest of the donations are sold at a low-price sale in the Student Center on the day before classes start. Another subcommittee of UA Sustain, Zero Waste, has led a multitude of sustainability-related initiatives on campus such as running the Green Box program in dining halls, distributing reusable utensil sets, and establishing dorm sustainability chairs to engage with the UA. A student-led on-campus thrift store is also in the works.

How to improve our waste management practices

Recycling education

Have you ever seen a Waste Watcher at an event you attended or at an on-campus dining hall or cafe? They are excited to be contributing to something that MIT does best: educate. The goal is not only for you to properly sort your waste once, but for you to learn how to continue to correctly sort waste in the future. Recycling education efforts on campus could help to drastically decrease recycling contamination. 

Having a few Waste Watchers staff events on campus is not enough to reach the entirety of the population; other educational initiatives need to be instituted to ensure that everyone is on the same page. By encouraging more students, faculty, and staff to take the aforementioned Responsible Waste Disposal Practices course, updating signage to make it more informative and comprehensive, and fostering additional educational initiatives, our community will take significant steps towards achieving higher recycling rates along with reduced contamination.

The goal of a single-stream system is to make recycling easier for the consumer, but that is where the problem lies: single-stream recycling creates a disconnect between the recycler and the final destination of the discarded items. Ruth Davis remarked that when recycling, each person should ask themself: “When you’re done with it, can it be made into something else?” If so, how can we, as consumers, best ensure that our waste reaches that stage? By thinking about these questions, our recycling contamination rates can decrease drastically, and we will be able to benefit from the easy use of single-stream recycling without worrying about the potential consequences. 

Enforcing proper waste management in dining halls

Understanding the source and sink for the food you eat is a significant aspect of being a sustainable citizen. Consuming primarily locally-sourced foods with low environmental impacts can contribute substantially to reducing your carbon footprint. Taking the time to learn about where your discarded food goes after you have finished eating, however, is half the battle. 

When you enter the dining hall and serve yourself, it is important to limit the amount of food you are putting on your plate. Leftover, unserved foods at MIT Dining are donated to those in need in the greater Boston area. Sticking to smaller portions and going back for seconds or thirds will allow you to reduce the amount of food waste you produce in any given meal. 

At the end of your meal, it is imperative to dispose of leftovers appropriately. All food waste and napkins can go into the food waste bins, and the rest of your meal should consist of reusables which are returned to be washed and used once again. Disposable cups, chopsticks, and plastic utensils must be discarded in the trash or they can contaminate the compost.

In light of the pandemic, dining halls and cafes will enforce very strict sanitation policies for the coming semester. Disposable cups, plates, and utensils will become the norm. The current plan is for black plastic take-out containers with clear plastic lids to be used. If this route is taken, the dyed black plastic, which can not be recycled and has remnants of food on it, must be thrown away. The clear lids can then be recycled — proper recycling education and signage must convey to students that recycling the black plastic containers will contaminate the recycling.

It is vital to prioritize sanitation during this time, but it does not have to come at the expense of waste reduction and reuse. Students representing a variety of groups — UA Sustain, DormCon, Waste Watchers, and more — are hoping to collaborate in suggesting potential sustainable alternatives such as compostable takeout containers. UA Sustain would like to continue to issue reusable bamboo utensils to students. These continued conversations will be integral to striking a safe balance between cleanliness and sustainability.

Make recycling goals a part of the new MIT Climate Action Plan

MIT’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), which was introduced by President Reif in 2015, proposed a goal of a 32% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, using 2014 as a baseline. In 2019, we saw an 18% reduction in GHG emissions. It also accelerated climate and energy research, established Low-Carbon Energy Centers, and vowed to energy efficient buildings on campus. However, there is no mention of tangible waste management goals in this plan. Waste management has a huge impact on climate change that is easily underestimated.

According to the EPA, “In 2017, more than 94 million tons of [Municipal Solid Waste] in the U.S. were recycled and composted, saving over 184 [million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent]. This is comparable to the emissions that could be reduced from taking over 39 million cars off the road in a year.” Adding a specific goal of improved recycling rates to the CAP will demonstrate an institutional commitment to better waste management practices.

Ruth Davis would like to see a 50% recycling rate at MIT. For context, the recycling rate was 35% in FY 2019 and 36% in FY 2020. While we had a 50% recycling rate in 2016, this has become harder since China has limited the quality of recycled goods imported to a strict 0.5% contamination rate in 2018. To achieve this standard, MIT’s recycling team has to toss contaminated bags in the trash, meaning that every time you throw a container with food in it or a coffee cup in the recycling bin, the whole thing might end up incinerated or in landfill. A recent waste audit in the Stata Center found that the true contamination rate was around 80%. This means that many people are recycling, but are not conscious about how. 

Moving forward

MIT’s community is filled with environmentally engaged citizens who want to have a positive impact on our shared environment. Spreading the word about how we can do that within our campus is an important step to achieving our low-carbon goals, minimizing waste, and promoting sustainable living. We each can do our part, and there’s no time to lose. Let’s all commit today to shaping the MIT we believe in — an environmentally conscious community, a model for other universities, and an ardent advocate for the environment.

The writers of this article are members of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Rapid Response Group.
Danielle Grey-Stewart ’21 is an undergraduate in Materials Science and Engineering.
Jessica Horowitz ’22 is an undergraduate in Mechanical Engineering.
Melissa Stok ’23 is an undergraduate in Materials Science and Engineering.
​​​​​​​Ava Waitz ’​​​​​​​21 is an undergraduate in Materials Science and Engineering.

Update 7/7/2020: This article and its headline were updated to reflect that information about MIT's recycling rate is from the fiscal year.