A deeper dive into recycling programs on campus

The Office of Solid Waste Management & Recycling gives students a look at recycling options on campus. // Photo courtesy of Office of Solid Waste Management & Recycling

While many neglect to think about where their disposable coffee cup or styrofoam take-out container will go after being thrown in a trash or recycling bin on campus, the lifecycle of materials plays a pivotal role in the health of the environment. 

For Campus Recycling Coordinator Emma Brodzik, the lifecycle of materials after being thrown in a recycling bin has always interested her.  

“Even when I was younger, I always made sure my parents recycled,” said Brodzick. “And when we moved to Georgia, our neighborhood didn’t have a collection, so I would force [my parents] to take me to have it dropped off and drive the recyclables.” 

During her time as an undergraduate student at Georgia College, Brodzik worked for the university’s Office of Sustainability. 

“They oversaw the recycling and waste programs, so I got even more involved with … the waste side of sustainability,” Brodzik explained.

Before working at Tech, Brodzik also managed a waste and recycling program for commercial properties, like malls and office buildings. 

“I got to learn a lot more of the operational side, which has really helped me here understanding a lot of the industry terminology, and not just the broader sustainable goals that recycling usually hits on,” said Brodzik.Here at Tech, Brodzik works in the Office of Solid Waste Management & Recycling. 

“Our office oversees the solid waste contracts for the campus,” said Brodzik. “We oversee the collection of landfill as well as recyclable material. Daily life is thinking about programs, how we can increase recycling, whether that’s with our traditional collection of materials or finding new pilot programs.”

Brodzik must work closely with several other departments to coordinate waste and recycling pick-up, including Dining Services, Housing and Residence Life and Environmental Health & Safety (EHS). 

Her work with EHS is to collect batteries for recycling since batteries are considered to be a hazardous material. Public-facing drop off locations for the batteries are in Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons, Crosland Tower and West Village Dining Commons. 

Brodzik also manages styrofoam collection on campus. 

“The styrofoam pilot started in July 2019 and we have collected about 900 pounds of styrofoam,” said Brodzik. “That’s a lot considering that it doesn’t weigh very much at all.”

Most of the styrofoam is collected during move-in, as well as from the Engineering Biosystems Building and Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences, from styrofoam coolers used to supply lab equipment. 

Besides these specialty programs, most of the Tech community utilizes general recycling. A defining characteristic of the Tech recycling program is that almost all on-campus recycling is source separated.

“That means all of our materials are kept separate from one another and in each of their categories,” said Brodzik. “So the plastic is kept separate from the aluminum, and paper or cardboard are all kept separate.”

There are a few exceptions to this system, namely some single-stream recycling bins. These bins are used outside the on-campus housing and on game days and are not source separated. Single-stream recycling has become a controversial topic in recent years for several reasons. 

“If you just generally say recycling to someone, they may not know every material,” Brodzik explained. “When you break it down into source-separated, everything is labeled more precisely, so it takes some of the guesswork out of it.”

Single-stream recycling often lends itself to people accidentally mixing trash with recyclables. 

“A lot of times people have the mentality of, ‘Oh, it’ll be sorted,’ because they do know that there is a recycling facility out there where this material is eventually going to go, and it’s going to go through some machines and some people,” said Brodzik.

Brodzik believes this is a dangerous misconception to have. 

“That’s not really the purpose of the sorting,” she said. “It mainly was created to just separate the different recyclables from one another and is not really separating out trash or contamination.”

On Tech’s campus, one way Brodzik monitors contamination of recycling is through a waste audit.  

“It is with our work for RecycleMania, which is a national competition to kind of benchmark different universities with one another and kind of check in and see how your program is going,” Brodzik explained. “So we have to report our waste and recycling rates and that’s done through pounds of material every week.” 

Although the process can be labor intensive, it creates a useful snapshot of the effectiveness of the recycling program in different buildings. 

“Basically, we collect material — it’s usually about 24 hours worth of material to get a snapshot of what one day would look like — and we will pick through all of it,” Brodzik explained. “So we’ll first start by sorting all of the trash or landfill material, and we will see how much recycling is in the landfill.”

The same process will then be done with trash in the recycling bins. 

“We will sort everything, weigh, record all of that and then we’ll look at the percentage of contamination for each,” said Brodzik, who will then use these percentages based on weight to analyze how much cross contamination is present in a building. 

Although Brodzik acknowledged that contamination occurs on Tech’s campus, she still focused on the positives. 

“There’s been a lot of news about the negative side of contamination and how that’s been affecting recycling,” said Brodzik. “I think we’re doing everything we can to get people to understand that we do have a slightly different program where we have things sorted. It keeps things much more clean and we work really closely with our vendors to make sure the material we are getting is clean and that they are taking it to someone that will close that loop.”

Additionally, Brodzik shared the importance of communication within her team so everyone is on the same page. 

“We have our recycling crew, whose responsibility is to pull the recyclables just so there’s never confusion about where the material should go between different staff members, to kind of keep the communication between a smaller group to make sure the material gets to where it needs to go,” said Brodzik. 

In terms of outward communication with the public, the Office of Solid Waste Management & Recycling has re-started their Instagram account @recycle.gatech.  

Looking forward, Brodzik noted several areas for continued improvement on campus.  

“We always want to increase our volumes,” said Brodzik. “I think we have a fairly good handle on contamination, but just making sure that the recycling is accessible all times …  that wherever you go, you would have the option to recycle, or if you had multiple items, you would be able to sort the materials as landfill or recycling.”

To assist with this, Brodzik would like to create an inventory of all indoors bins to determine if certain buildings need more or less bins to increase accessibility. 

For now, Brodzik’s biggest piece of advice for the Tech community is to be more conscious of what is going into recycling bins and focus on cutting waste. 

“People often have a wishful thinking, which a lot of people call ‘wish-cycling,’ because as people are becoming more aware of their waste footprint, you don’t want to feel like you’re throwing things out or contributing to the landfill,” said Brodzik. “So they are hopeful in the fact that ‘If I send this material, it will be recycled,’ but a lot of times, they’re items that just aren’t recyclable, so it would be better to try to … eliminate some of those materials.”