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U of M recycling program celebrates 25 years

The U's recycling program has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1984

By Chris Kelleher and Adam Overland

Students sort recycling at Como facility
Student workers Joe Anderson (left) and John Kurczewski sort paper at the Como Recycling Facility.

April 15, 2009

In the summer and fall of 2008, prices for metal, paper, and plastic reached record highs. Revenue for recyclable commodities at the U was more than $500,000. It was a good year for recycling, but the U has seen the ups and downs of the industry over its own recycling program's 25-year history. And on this anniversary year, the trend is tending lean, at least in the short-term.

Dana Donatucci, doctor of recycling

The U's Dana Donatucci, director of the recycling program, who incidentally has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, says that we have just entered a period of historically low prices for all commodities. So that $500,000 might dip down to about $120,000. In order to weather these wide swings, the U recycling program sets budgets assuming the average low price levels. But while the payouts for the recycling may have suffered of late (much like the rest of the economy), the program itself is stronger than ever and poised for another record year should prices rebound. In the meantime, you've got to admit, even $120,000 is better than nothing--which 25 years ago was about standard.

The U's recycling program has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1984. That year, Facilities Management began recycling office paper (and only office paper) in a single campus building. Now, the program has expanded collections into every campus building, including residence halls, food services, academic buildings, and research facilities. In addition to office paper, the program collects magazines, newspaper, beverage cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles, tin cans, phonebooks, cardboard, organics, and more. Currently, about twelve tons of recyclable materials are recovered each working day--32 percent of the total solid waste generated by the U each year.

Still, Donatucci would like to see 50 percent of the U's waste recycled. And it's feasible, he says, because about 55 percent of regular trash is recyclable. Once you include the next frontier of composting, Donatucci would raise the recycling bar to 70 percent. Admittedly, the U has a long way to go, but it's gaining ground.

Pioneering U

Something that might surprise you is that the U was one of the first institutions in the country to co-mingle cans and bottles. "That wasn't done when we started doing it," says Donatucci. In the late 1980s, the predominant beverage material was glass, and when glass hits glass it shatters and mixes together. Glass is sorted by colors, and recycling companies would pay more for say, a ton of green glass than a ton of green and brown glass. The question the U asked was, "Would aluminum in the mix help cushion the glass?" "We found that to be the case," says Donatucci. So in 1989, the U refined its collection process.

Sorting is a key element in making any recycling effort profitable; the U gets more money from recycling companies the purer the product delivered. But you can't sort everything, says Donatucci, and you can’t throw it all together, either.

If you leave all recyclables (paper, glass, aluminum, etc.) together in the same bin--something called single-stream recycling--you may actually have to pay to recycle--about $50 a ton. In part that's because single stream recycling can result in a gooey paper, glass, and liquid mix that's hard on recycling equipment.

Sorting on site poses its own problems. "If we used a container for everything we collect, we'd need seven or eight different containers," he says. "You can't run a program at an institution like that--you have to figure out a way to take this mess and put it into categories that make sense."

Making cents

In 1991, the recycling program underwent a major change in operations with the implementation of the SMART System (Self Managed Activities for Recyclables and Trash: a.k.a. the Quad System), whereby individuals dispose of their own waste and recyclables. By placing greater responsibility with the individual, the SMART System significantly changed the way recyclable materials were collected and dramatically reduced the amount of garbage sent to incinerators and landfills. In 1996, the U won the National Recycling Coalition's best school recycling program, largely owing to the SMART System concept. Donatucci wants to keep beating that same drum, because, frankly, it's working.

"The concept is really to get the management of recycling on the individual level," says Donatucci. "If we can get people aware of how they impact the environment…once they have the information they make the right choices—it's just that we [haven't always made] it easy for them," he says.

Como recycling facility
Collected items are processed at the Como Recycling Facility to meet acceptable standards for sale to manufacturers.

In the 1990s, the U converted an old warehouse to the Como Recycling Facility in the 90s, and bought equipment to aid in the processing of materials collected. In 1998, the program purchased a horizontal baler, allowing it to transition from shipping recyclable materials in roll-off boxes to baling them. The same year, it further expanded the recycling program with the addition of Newspaper PLUS. This allowed for the comingling of newspaper with other material such as magazines, books, and catalogs. The process increased recycled material rates by 250-300 tons per year.

Recent developments

In September 2007, a campuswide partnership between Facilities Management and University Dining Services (UDS), in cooperation with Aramark and Hennepin County, formed to recycle compostable dining facility waste. The partnership collects eco-friendly waste, such as food scraps, napkins, paper towels, and biodegradable packaging in compostable bags and takes it to a Hennepin County composting site. As a result of this effort, a campus record 371 tons of compost was collected from participating kitchen and dining facilities in the program’s first year.

So the goal of 50 percent might not be such an insurmountable objective after all. "Recycling has become a part of the University's culture over the last 25 years," says Donatucci. "So, I've got to believe that everyone knows the environmental benefits of it. But if we are going to reach our goal of recycling 50 percent of the University's waste stream--everyone has to get involved."

Burning questions and interesting statistics

Why can't you recycle pizza boxes? Actually, this is only a problem when the pizza boxes are heavily soiled, says Donatucci. Sometimes boxes are recycled with entire pieces of pizza in them, and it's not worth it for the recycling company to gum up their equipment with sausage, pepperoni, and cheese. Donatucci says you can, in fact, recycle a pizza box if it has light stains, like grease. And if it has food still stuck to it, "you can still rip off the lid and recycle half of it."

Why do recycling companies not take yogurt containers? "Have you taken any chemistry classes?" asks Donatucci. It has to do with the polymers used to make those containers having large wax-like properties. It's hard to recycle—and hard to explain, to someone who, admittedly, hasn't had much chemistry.

Different grades of plastics are used for different types of beverages. For example, the bubbly CO2 in your soda can leak out if using certain types of compostable plastic. Whole milk and skim milk containers are made from different plastics, because higher fat content beverages need an oxygen barrier to make sure the product doesn't spoil. And the UDS compostable cups can't be used for hot beverages (they will shrink right in your hand). "That property makes [them] compostable," says Donatucci. The heat helps the cups decompose—fast.

One of the most environmentally beneficial commodities to recycle is metal, says Donatucci. The aluminum in that can of Coke you're drinking would likely require 15 to 20 times the amount of energy to make from ore than to recycle from other cans. And the process would burn and release that much more carbon into the atmosphere.

On average, for every pound of recycling, you remove about two pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Additional information

U of M Recycling Program: How it Works

U of M Recycling Program: Generating Revenue

Video: U of M stages landfill with 6 tons of garbage

2007 stats on the U's recycling tonnage