Office of Sustainability expands recycling program with more blue toters
Notre Dame’s Office of Sustainability is partnering with Building Services to roll out an expanded recycling program on campus. As part of the communication efforts of the program, the Office of Sustainability and Building Services co-hosted their third installment of “Recycling Listening and Learning Sessions” this past Wednesday in an effort to share updates and receive feedback from community members.
Lizzie Stifel, director of sustainability for student government, said that one of her main objectives is to debunk student mistrust in the University’s recycling process.
“I think a lot of people love to recycle, and they want to trust in it, but I think we’ve had a kind of tough spin right?” Stifel said. “Because when I was a freshman, it was COVID, and we didn’t have recycling. And then when we got it back, it was like, ‘Well, what are we actually doing with it?’”
For Geory Kurtzhals, senior director of sustainability, this mistrust is precisely why her department has prioritized a “student-focused” program.
A key component of the new recycling initiative, which began this past August, includes blue toters that have been placed on each floor of residence halls that have the space to accommodate them. The individual trash bins of classrooms in Debartolo and O’Shaughnessy Halls have also been removed and replaced with centralized trash bins and recycling toters.
The Office of Sustainability hopes that the close placement of landfill and recycling bins will have a behavioral impact on student waste disposal.
So, what exactly can be recycled? During the “Recycling Listening and Learning Session,” Kurtzhals explained that the recycling industry is extremely volatile and subject to regional differences. Many universities, including Notre Dame, work with third party vendors and must tailor their programs to the specific capabilities of vendor machinery.
For about two years, Notre Dame has partnered with Recycling Works, a facility based in Elkhart, Indiana, that receives, breaks down and separates Notre Dame’s single-stream loads.
Before the pandemic, recycling was collected in plastic bags at locations across campus to be processed by the University’s then-vendor, Waste Management. However, Recycling Works cannot collect recyclables in plastic bags because they interfere with the machinery, according to Kurtzhals.
This requirement, along with stricter standards for contamination, meant the Office of Sustainability had to shift to collecting recyclables in the blue toters.
The Office of Sustainability is working to place informational posters above every blue toter about what can be recycled.
“We have to be really thoughtful about what we print and put on our containers because the recycling industry changes,” Kurtzhals said. “And so that’s why there are so many iterations of posters because of the changes over time.”
Austin Poyar, the sustainability program manager for operations, clarified some of the common misbeliefs about recycling. For example, at Notre Dame, solo cups, greasy pizza boxes, plastic forks and Starbucks coffee cups can all be recycled and processed at Recycle Works, as long as they are empty. However, paper towels — new or used — cannot be recycled.
In general, rigid plastics, paper, metal and glass can be recycled in the blue toters, as well as cardboard placed in larger gray toters in residence halls.
“What we’re after really is minimal contamination [from] the landfill container,” said Chris Hatfield, senior director of Building Services.
“We know there’s going to be some contamination and we’re working with our partner to see what level of contamination they can deal with, and sometimes they might have to reject a load if it’s very heavily contaminated.”
The recycling industry has seen a steep reduction in the amount of contamination permitted per load. Kurtzhals estimates a shift from an allowable 35% contamination, down to about 5% or less.
Nonetheless, the Office of Sustainability and Building Services notes that their single-stream partnership with Recycling Works has been accommodating. Recycling Works has not rejected a load of University recycling since the Notre Dame-Clemson game in Nov. 2022, when the bins were overflowing with tailgating waste.
With the new recycling programs in place, Stifel said that the next important step is to establish a “sustainability network.”
“There’s so many people that are super passionate [about sustainability], but they’re in their own little silos,” Stifel said. During her time as sustainability director, she hopes to bring this network together in a “physical and virtual space.”
In addition to the recycling program expansion, the Office of Sustainability is developing a strategic sustainability plan, exploring options for transportation electrification and converting food waste into energy with the Grind2Energy program, Kurtzhals said.
Despite the changing program, Stifel emphasized that recycling on campus is “legitimate.”
“We can trace what we’re recycling down the road to Recycling Works. You can go visit Recycling Works and see where our recycling goes and how much we’re diverting,” Stifel said.
Kurtzhals extended an invitation to students to be a part of the recycling expansion process.
“Yes, we do recycle on campus. Yes, we are working hard toward solutions, and please be a part of this process with us and help us to move in a positive direction.“