‘A tough nut to crack:’ Dartmouth faces ongoing recycling challenges
The College has decreased its proportion of waste sent to recycling programs in recent years due to strict regulations on contamination in recyclable materials, according to staff and students familiar with the issue.
Dartmouth’s rural location and persistent issues with producing contaminated recycling have proven an ongoing challenge for the College, according to the Sustainability Office and student groups on campus. Meanwhile, College offices and student groups have pushed for ways to recycle more effectively.
According to sustainability director Rosalie Kerr ’97, the College employs a single-stream recycling system — designed to allow users to dispose of materials like plastic and paper together — which is then sorted by the College’s industrial waste management partner, Casella Waste Systems. In practice, however, Kerr said that contamination with food and beverages leads recyclables to be diverted to landfill at multiple points throughout the waste management process. The College sends food waste, like that produced by the Class of 1953 Commons, to an industrial composting facility in Lebanon, Kerr said.
Casella director of communications Jeff Weld wrote in an email statement that material from the College is first brought to Casella’s facility in White River Junction, where it is inspected for contamination before being reloaded into larger transfer trailers bound for the Material Recovery Facility in Rutland, Vermont. If possible, Weld wrote that prior to recyclables arriving at the recycling facility, contaminated material is isolated from the recyclables and sent to the Lebanon Landfill for disposal.
Weld declined to share information about Dartmouth’s annual budget with Casella.
According to an online portal maintained by the Sustainability Office, Dartmouth sent 966 tons — or 24% — of its waste to single-stream recycling in 2016, and 1,939 tons to landfill. Meanwhile, by fiscal year 2022, Dartmouth sent only 8% of its waste to single-stream recycling.
Sustainability Office assistant director Marcus Welker said that this decline was due to the decreasing value of recyclables in 2016 and 2017, which led Casella to implement stricter contamination thresholds to deal with higher costs. It was no longer as profitable, Welker said, for Casella and other waste management companies to accept large amounts of contaminated waste in hopes of sorting out key recyclables, a strategy which used to yield high profits.
Kerr added that policy shifts in China and other countries, which formerly accepted large amounts of recyclables from the United States, led to this change in the recycling market value chain. The lack of competition between waste management companies in the Upper Valley leads to custodians being unable to recycle bags if they don’t have a “limited amount of contamination.”
“Part of the challenge in this environment in the rural Upper Valley is there is not a lot of competition [between waste management companies],” Welker said. “What Casella told us is that the contamination threshold is zero. When a custodian looks at bags of recycling, they are looking for a very limited amount of contamination in a bag.”
Weld wrote in his email that Casella faces competition from WM — the largest waste and recycling hauler in North America — and several smaller companies in the region.
More generally, Dartmouth represents a “microcosm” of the “fundamentally broken” American recycling system, according to Kerr.
“When you recycle a piece of plastic, it often moves through [the] recycling chain until it becomes unrecyclable,” Kerr said. “Recycling may make us feel better, but does not solve [the] human waste problem on earth, [as] only a tiny fraction of recyclables are recycled due to contamination.”
According to Kerr, the College faces fines if it sends recycling with contaminants to Casella. As a result, she said that the College trains custodial staff to inspect recycling bags for contaminants before sending them onwards. If they find contaminants like food, Kerr said, they have been trained to divert the recyclables to trash. This process may contribute to the “rumor mill” that the College does not have a recycling program in place, Kerr added.
The persistent rumor on campus that custodial staff combine trash and recycling is untrue, according to Julia King ’23, who learned about the recycling process from Kerr during a guest lecture in ENGS 2: “Integrated Design: Engineering, Architecture and Building Technology.”.
“I’ve been telling my friends about that because it is a common misconception,” King said, “I have been rinsing plastics before I recycle them in the hopes that I could help.”
King said that Dartmouth could improve on its messaging about recycling and the requirements for single-stream recyclables to be accepted.
“There is basically no information about recycling here,” King said. “I learned the accurate situation at a lecture during my senior year.”
Multiple dimensions of a dynamic undergraduate community make sustainable recycling education difficult, according to Kerr. First, students come from a variety of recycling backgrounds — items recyclable in some metropolitan areas, for example, may not be processed by Casella.
“People come from all different climates and places variously impacted by climate change and pollution,” King said, adding that in her hometown of Indianapolis, her family practices rinsing items before recycling.
“I always did that and never thought about it,” King said.
Widespread student confusion over recyclable materials may be due to how products are labeled, according to Welker. Certain packages which say they are recyclable may be recyclable in some parts of the country, Welker said, but not by Casella in the Upper Valley.
Even “well-intentioned” community members often pause and hesitate over landfill and recycling bins across campus, both Kerr and Welker reported.
According to Kerr, the College has experimented with “every sign you can think of,” and a variety of messaging efforts and bin-types to improve our recycling output. The transient nature of the D-Plan and turnover of student leaders further complicates the situation, she said.
“A big challenge — an additional challenge that Dartmouth faces — is the D-plan,” Kerr said. “We have to educate every term to reach every person.”
The Dartmouth bike shop is a pocket of campus dedicated to improving its recycling track record, according to Wendell Wu ’23. He said that the shop has learned about waste management through conversations with the College Facilities Operations and Management office.
“This term we created this new waste management role responsible for learning about how we generate waste — like tubes from tires, how we recycle tires, how to coordinate with FO&M and res-ops in general [and] how to handle waste coming out of the bike shop in general,” Wu said.
Wu said that the shop used to send used inner tubes — which hold air within bicycle tires — to the landfill. The bike shop created a new waste management role, according to Wu, to learn how to better recycle waste coming through the shop. The shop now sends the bike inner tubes to a center in Colorado with the specialized equipment to process the rubber in inner tubes.
More broadly, Wu said the shop practices product recycling by taking used and abandoned bikes from campus and making them “rideable” again — a small contribution to campus sustainability.
Given our current situation, Kerr said there is room for the College to make “radical” changes and re-imagine our waste management processes. For example, she suggested a pilot program where the College stops buying recyclable plastics and glass, and focuses on items which can be composted, such as corn plastics, paper and wood. That way, Kerr said, students could dispose of compostable containers and organic contaminants in a single bin.
Weld wrote that Casella is working on a pilot program with TerraCycle in Burlington, Vermont on ways to “easily recycle items that are traditionally difficult to recycle” while investing its infrastructure dedicated to putting waste to a higher use.
“We’re currently piloting a program with TerraCycle in the Burlington, Vermont market that seeks to easily recycle items that are traditionally difficult to recycle and don’t belong in a single-stream process,” Weld wrote. “We’re also working with large manufacturers throughout various industries in helping them achieve their own sustainability goals and exploring opportunities to move their production to a more circular economy.”
The Office of Facilities Operations & Management did not respond to requests for comment by press time.