McDonald: Yalies must go beyond recycling

You’ve heard it ad nauseum: reduce, reuse and recycle. And yet, before you toss this paper (in the recycling bin, of course), consider Yale’s performance this year in the 10-week intercollegiate competition, RecycleMania. Sound familiar? In a column two months ago, Laura Wellman ’12 noted our lackluster standing (181st out of 267 schools) and implored our community to improve its recycling habits. Unfortunately, by the end of the competition two weeks ago, our standing had dropped to 186th, proving that if nothing else, we’re capable of recycling our results (last year we also placed in the 70th percentile).

Losing once again to Harvard, and being a poor sport, I took a step back and wondered whether recycling was really benefiting the planet as much as I thought. If I rinse my soda can prior to recycling, is there really much of a net gain because of the wasted water? Applying similarly iconoclastic thinking to other tenets of environmentally conscious living, I asked myself whether it helps to bike to my laboratory instead of taking the shuttle, especially if the bus is going to run anyway. Even if I lived sustainably for one year, wouldn’t all of those gains be completely annihilated by the emissions from a single airplane flight? The process was overwhelming, and these defeatist thoughts soon soured me on the Bulldog Sustainability challenge at the gym to only use one paper towel. (I greedily used two.) So what if the Cantabs’ recycling rate — the percentage of waste recycled — is more than 11 percentage points higher than ours?

I then took a closer look at the numbers. In the first week of the challenge, we recycled over 70,000 pounds — a tremendous amount of would-have-been trash. RecycleMania serves as an important reminder that small efforts, when combined, can be substantial. Per person, we recycled on average three pounds of trash a week, which was just short of being in the top ten percent of schools with the most recyclables. The reason why our recycling rate was not also close to the top 10 percent was that we had much more overall trash than many other schools.

We can do better, but we need more opportunities to reduce waste, such as through the University’s composting and laboratory recycling programs. These two fledgling programs are ambitious undertakings that will only succeed if they are nurtured financially and administratively. Graduate students, in particular members of the Yale chapter of Scientists & Engineers for America, have been pushing for over a year to get a pilot program for laboratory recycling started. Part of the delay has been logistical, but it has also been because Yale’s recycling department only has a single full-time employee, Cyril May. For a university dedicated to being green, the department is woefully understaffed.

As a member of a laboratory in the pilot program, we recycle an incredible number of pipette tip boxes and media bottles. While this is good news, there are already problems with overflowing recycling containers; when the program is expanded to all labs, the system may fail without a concomitant increase in staff. A proposal to recycle non-plastic products such as glass will also require additional support.

From the RecycleMania results, it’s clear that universities outside of the Ivy League have figured out how to become more environmentally friendly; while Harvard’s 32 percent recycling rate was enough to win the Ivy League, the overall winner, California State University at San Marcos, achieved a recycling rate of nearly 72 percent, begging the question of what San Marcos is doing that we are not. Presumably, a well-designed recycling infrastructure, including specialized programs for huge waste producers like dining halls and laboratories, would make it easier to reduce waste. But infrastructure changes aren’t everything. This year, Washington University in St. Louis thought it could increase its recycling rate by not requiring people to sort their own recyclables, but it actually recycled slightly less this year.

The other primary factor in recycling is the dedication of the community to green principles. Ideally, one day it will be just as taboo at Yale to toss a recyclable in the trash as it is to smoke in close proximity to an infant. And if smoking habits can spread in social networks, why can’t environmentally friendly practices as well? While top-down leadership is essential, individuals have a surprising amount of sway in the matter.

Since both culture and infrastructure are resistant to change, it’s not surprising that over 88 percent of schools in the competition stayed with 10 percentage points of their 2009 recycling rates. Schools that did manage to significantly improve, including Brown, may provide hints about what Yale could do differently. Given our performance this year, more emphasis should be placed on reducing overall waste. For starters, students in overheated dormitories should be able to turn the heat down instead of having to open windows to cool spaces. These incremental steps are important if we want to move beyond just talking about recycling.