Finding Cost-Effective University Recycling Solutions

Despite efforts to improve recycling, about 80% of the material in landfills is recyclable. While today’s students are generally more aware of the value of recycling than earlier generations, there is still considerable room for improvement.

Colleges and universities looking to reduce waste and improve recycling on campus often face budgetary constraints, even when prioritizing sustainability initiatives. To be successful, procurement teams and facilities managers must find effective campus recycling solutions that are also cost-effective. The good news is that enhancing recycling rates significantly does not require massive capital investments in all new equipment right away. Through targeted infrastructure changes, creating incentives, and utilizing waste audits, educational institutions can make meaningful progress and remain cost-conscious.

Common Recycling Challenges for Universities

The most glaring obstacles institutions cite as preventing major upgrades to recycling on campus are funding-related. Aging equipment, like bins, needs replacement, while contamination from improper waste sorting continues to increase collection and processing costs. Often, there are more pressing capital needs across campuses that put recycling efforts on the back burner.

However, even minor contamination can result in entire hauls getting re-categorized as more expensive trash by third-party processors. Without modern signage, lids, or openings that ease identification and minimize confusion, mixing recyclables and waste—contamination—creates additional costs for universities.

Outdated branding on faded bins also fails to reinforce sustainability as a campus priority compared to sleek new buildings.

Improving Infrastructure Within Budget Realities

To overcome these challenges, creativity becomes essential. There are several ways that colleges and universities have improved their recycling programs while working within budgets. For example:

  • Sponsorships: Some companies that rely on student consumers also look to fund recycling bins with their logos, given the reputational benefits of partnerships.
  • Grants: There are also grants available, such as those created by the recent Infrastructure Law, that support a private-public partnership to implement campus recycling solutions. Some states also have funding mechanisms.
  • Phased rollouts: If upfront investments remain difficult, a phased rollout by focusing on the highest traffic areas first gives time for proof of concepts.
  • Visibility: Simple changes like clear signage, consistent bin colors coding waste streams, and modified lids or openings reduce confusion and contamination in existing assets.
  • Education: Investing in student, staff, and faculty recycling education programs pays significant dividends. Understanding what is recyclable and proper sorting habits directly reduce contamination costs.
  • Process optimization: Review hauling schedules, pickup routes, load consolidation, and sorting steps to identify operations savings opportunities in waste management workflows.
  • Cooperative contracts: Leveraging the bulk buying power from cooperative agreements offered by E&I Cooperative Services, can significantly reduce costs for recycling bins and accessories.

Incentivizing Students to Recycle

No program will be effective if you struggle to get students to participate. When you consider that the average recycling rate is 24% at schools, there’s work to be done. The key is incentivizing students to be active partners in meeting sustainability goals.

Two of the most common reasons students cite for not recycling are challenges in finding recycling stations and confusion over which materials are recyclable. Careful placement of recycling bins aids in making them more accessible. Customizing recycling solutions with school colors, logos, or mascots can also help with awareness, and clear signage can help relieve sorting challenges.

Other incentives include:

  • Gamification and Prizes: Implement recycling competitions between dorms or student groups, with prizes like pizza parties, preferred parking passes, or tickets to school events.
  • Campus Currency/Points: Offer redeemable points or credits for using campus recycling stations, applied to campus vendor purchases like coffee shops or apparel.
  • Housing Savings: Provide small reductions in housing costs for residence halls, reaching certain recycling benchmarks to reward sustainable dorms.
  • Recycled Products: Distribute special university-branded gear like water bottles or notebooks made from the school’s own recycled plastic or paper waste materials.
  • Recycling Ambassadors: Build connections through a student ambassador program that provides recycling information to peers and giveaways at high-traffic events.
  • Charitable Ties: Link recycling efforts to charitable causes students care about via donation drives of recyclable goods.

Finding Cost-Effective Recycling Solutions

E&I Cooperative Services can help with recycling on campus. E&I contracts enable colleges and universities to reduce costs and get ready access to recycling bins and other site furnishings.

As the only member-owned, non-profit sourcing cooperative focused exclusively on education, E&I Cooperative Services helps colleges and universities maximize their budgets by leveraging the group buying power of its 6,000 members.

Membership is free for schools, and there is no obligation to view or use contracts.

E&I offers competitively solicited contracts with leading recycling providers, including Recycle Away and the Prestwick Companies.

View available contracts from E&I Cooperative Services and find cost-effective recycling solutions.


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