Waste audit results are in: 23% of HBS trash is recyclable!

On a cold Tuesday afternoon this past November, while most HBS students were busy reading cases, working out in Shad or enjoying our daily naps, a few HBS Green Living Representatives were digging through bags of trash in an Allston facility.

Yes, you read correctly – trash – smelly, slimy, completely uncensored garbage generated by all the HBS dorms, Spangler and Aldrich. Armored in surgical gowns, industrial dust masks and heavy-duty latex gloves, the reps were at least physically prepared for the task. But psychologically? Well, that was another matter. Let’s just say that every bag was full of unmentionable surprises. But something was consistent in each bag of trash, whether it was from Chase, Morris or Spangler: each bag contained a substantial portion of items that are actually recyclable (i.e. paper, plastic, cardboard, glass, metals, etc.) In fact, 23% of the audited HBS trash is recyclable or reusable (by weight). In addition, 36% of the trash was organic material (i.e. food, napkins or paper towels).

The event just described is the bi-annual HBS Waste Audit, organized by the Harvard Green Living Program. Every fall and spring, your Green Living Reps set out to sort through and carefully measure a sample of trash collected by HBS Operations. First, the good news: since the first audit in 2005, the percentage of recyclables in HBS trash has generally declined from the mid-30% range to the low 20s. That means that the HBS community is recycling meaningfully more than it was just four years ago. But the bad news is that we’re throwing away more recyclables in our trash now than we did last year (23% in Fall 2009, compared to 22% in Fall 2008 and 19% in Spring 2009).

Why are recyclables or reusables in our trash a problem, you might ask? Well, think of it as throwing away dollar bills every time you throw away something that can be recycled. Believe it or not, it costs Harvard approximately $60 more per ton to transport trash than recyclables. And even more significantly, the energy equivalency per ton saved by recycling can range anywhere from 17 gallons of gasoline for glass bottles to more than 1,400 gallons of gasoline for aluminum cans! At current national average gasoline prices, even a conservative estimate yields about $300 in energy equivalency savings per ton of recycled materials! (Sources: AAA Fuel Gauge Report, Harvard Facilities Maintenance Operations: //www.uos.harvard.edu/fmo/recycling/faq.shtml#twentyseven)

Adding up all the costs, we’re basically throwing away more than $13,000 a year that could otherwise be used for more TGIFs or upgrading student facilities. And added to that figure, the environmental impact is non-trivial: throwing away 35 tons of recyclable material (extrapolated from the waste audit results) is roughly equivalent to emitting almost 80,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere per year.

As you are (perhaps painfully) aware, any written piece of work at HBS must include an action plan. So what can we all do to help HBS bring down disposal costs and emit less C02?

1) Review what items can or can’t be recycled. Harvard’s adoption of Single Stream has made it easier than ever before to recycle because all recyclables go into the same bin. But it also means that we’re often confused as to what items can actually go into the bins. As indicated by the responses to a quiz question in the Green Living Poll earlier this school year, 32% of respondents incorrectly thought that juice boxes cannot be recycled at Harvard (in fact, they are recyclable). Similarly, 40% of respondents thought that aluminum foil cannot be recycled, and 17% thought that plastic plates/cups cannot be recycled (just check for the recycling symbol on plastics). All of these materials belong in the recycling bin, not in the trash. Believe it or not, the facility that processes Harvard’s recycling recently expanded its capabilities so that even pizza boxes and paper cups/plates (with very minimal food residue) can now be recycled.

Many of us have the mentality of “I’m not certain that this item can be recycled, so let me just play it safe and throw it into the trash bin.” The single most effective action we can take to reduce the amount of recyclables in our trash is to learn what can be recycled. That’s the hardest part. The actual act of recycling is easy – we just toss the item into the Single-Stream bins found all over campus. To help you review, we have included a list of tips concerning what is and is not recyclable to the left.

2) Bring your own mug and water bottle: Very few students currently bring their own mugs for coffee or tea, but doing so can drastically reduce the amount of Styrofoam cups in our trash. And bringing your own water bottle only makes sense – why pay for a free commodity?

3) Return any food waste or other compostables (napkins, paper towels) to the Spangler tray conveyer belt area instead of throwing away in the trash. While we currently don’t have the capacity to compost front-of-the-house at HBS, Restaurant Associates composts back-of-the-house. Composting food waste is much greener than dumping it in a landfill, since biodegradable waste breaks down into methane, a greenhouse gas that has 25 times more global warming potential than C02.

If we collectively take these actions and follow these tips, we will bring down costs meaningfully and reduce HBS’s greenhouse gas emissions. So let’s all make a belated New Year’s resolution to bring down the amount of recyclables in our trash, starting now, and hopefully we will see a positive difference in the next Waste Audit this spring!

Tip #1:
Recycle all paper (including brown paper bags), cardboard (but make sure to flatten it first), plastics, glass jars and bottles, metal cans (i.e. soup and soda cans), and aluminum foil. Plastics must have the recycling symbol and must be numbered 1-7.

Tip #2:
Recycle items with very minimal food and beverage residue. Whenever possible, dispose of food residue or dump liquids before recycling the container.

Tip #3:
Paper towels and napkins cannot be recycled. However, they can be composted if you leave them on trays in the conveyer belt area right outside the Spangler cafeteria.

Tip #4:
Junk mail can be recycled. This includes staples, tape, and envelope windows.