MIT’s sustainable cycle: How to recycle the right way

MIT’s sustainable cycle: How to recycle the right way

MIT’s sustainable cycle: How to recycle the right way

How to save the world by modifying our recycling habits on campus (and everywhere else)

March 15, 2023 | Anonymous Auth.

Have you ever looked down inside the blue recycling bins around campus wondering if what we had thrown away is truly recyclable? From a piece of paper that you scribble over during your quiz to an empty coffee cup someone drank in the morning, can it all truly be recycled? The short answer is no, but more importantly, at some point we’ve probably contaminated the waste stream through our “Wishful Recycling” habits.

I believe most of us try to do our part to care for this wonderful planet on which we live and one of those simple things we try to do is recycling. Easy right? Just throw what seems to be recyclable down the blue bin instead of the black one. 

However, the problem is that most of the things we wishfully think can be recycled turn out to do more harm than good once in the blue bin. Coffee cups, pizza boxes, and many other single-use items are NOT able to be recycled. Not only can these items not be recycled, but they can actually contaminate the WHOLE bin of recyclable items and prevent the other “acceptable” items from even being recycled!

The MIT Waste Watchers are a group of students working under the Department of Recycling and Materials Management who understand MIT’s waste management systems and are paid to help people at MIT properly dispose of their trash. According to our Waste Watchers, our campus faces high levels of cross-contamination in waste streams. Non-recyclable materials such as plastic utensils from free food events and disposable coffee cups are often found in recycling bins, resulting in high levels of contamination. When the recycling streams are heavily contaminated, MIT’s waste management provider is forced to discard them in the trash, rendering any efforts to pre-sort recycling or composting useless.

So, what can we do to clean up our recycling habits? How can we help our Waste Watchers get off of work early in time to do their p-sets?

Bring your own containers

The best thing you can do to solve this problem is actually to reduce your consumption of single-use items in the first place! Instead of hoping your coffee cup and straw will be recycled, try to bring your own reusable cup. Consider bringing your own containers when catering is available at events. MIT student events often give out free reusable water bottles as swag for this very reason, as it can save countless plastic bottles from going to waste. And if you’re really up for a challenge, consider a zero-waste lifestyle: here is a step by step guide from Poly Barks!

When in doubt, throw it out!

If you do find yourself with a used single-use item in hand, just be honest with yourself about where it’s going to end up and throw it in the trash. Better to take the L with this one than wishfully tossing it into the recycling bin, only to ruin the chances of the clean items in that bin actually getting recycled. It will also help you be more aware of just how much waste you send to a landfill. Check out my drawing (fig 1) that I did last semester for one of my design exploration classes for a simple list of recyclable and non-recyclable items. For a complete list of items that can be recycled and how to recycle them properly, check out this guide on how to recycle anything.

An illustration showing two recycling bins, one illustrated to show the outside of the bin, and the second filled with outlines of a variety of objects. Objects with a black outline are able to be recycled: Metal, plastic, glass, paper, and cardboard. Objects with a red outline are not able to be recycled: Styrofoam, clothing/linens, electronic waste, plastic bags/wrap, pizza boxes, shredded paper, food and liquids. It also tells you not to bag recyclables.

Fig 1 – The Recycling Bin. What goes in? What shouldn’t go in?

Wash Wash Wash

It is important to wash food containers before putting them into the recycling bin. Food residue can contaminate other materials in the recycling bin, making them unsuitable for recycling. Contaminated materials may also lead to the rejection of an entire batch of recyclables by the processing facility, causing them to be sent to the landfill instead. Therefore, if you can take the time to thoroughly wash food and drink containers before putting them in the recycling bin, it is totally worth the effort! I simply run Kimchi jars and other food containers in the dishwasher before putting them in my recycling bin at home.  At school, I rinse my to-go salad container and empty soda bottle before discarding them. These small acts require a little bit more effort, but if done correctly, would create a huge impact on our planet.

So before you put anything in the recycling bin hoping it will find another life as a new recycled product without totally being sure it’s recyclable, always check first, and remember,”when in doubt, throw it out.”  You can do your part to help keep the recycling system strong by keeping it clean and free of contaminants. 

MIT students are capable of solving much more complex problems ranging from rocket science to particle physics, but remember, when it comes to recycling, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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