Recycling on Campus: How to Encourage Sustainability

Recycling on campus can make a significant difference in reducing waste. In a 2023 competition, more than 3.4 million college students and staff donated, composted, and recycled a staggering 29.4 million pounds of waste. That included recycling more than 205 million single-use plastic bottles and preventing the release of nearly 30,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Yet, this competition only featured 200 of the more than 4,300 higher education institutions in the U.S. Just think about how much could be recycled at every campus across the country!

Beyond just maintaining basic recycling programs, colleges and universities have an opportunity to leverage their scale to educate students on broader environmental stewardship. However, enacting reliable campus recycling is easier said than done. Competing priorities, dated equipment, and general student apathy create barriers for many institutions.

Overcoming Current Barriers to Recycling on Campus

It is not as simple as putting out recycling bins.

Contamination continues to plague recycling efforts as students fail to properly sort waste, creating waste downstream and increasing sorting costs. Overflowing bins also detract from participation while creating potentially unsanitary environments.

Outdated equipment lacking customization or that offers limited accessibility also further discourages recycling habits. Without proper incentives or accountability measures, apathy can spread across campus.

First and foremost, institutions must invest in pickup frequencies, rightsizing receptacles, and ensuring wide distribution for convenience. Some keys include:

  • Capacity planning that matches bin size to output and traffic patterns to alleviate overflow.
  • Custom wraps and signage to ensure proper recycling and sorting.
  • Promoting recycling ambassadors who check contamination rates and reinforce protocols.

With contamination minimized and infrastructure supporting participation rather than restricting it, the foundation for reliable recycling takes shape.

Incentivizing Involvement

Colleges and universities can also implement initiatives to encourage participation. Examples include competitions, rewards programs, and student-led projects. For example, creating a competition among dorms with a monthly leaderboard can introduce gamification into the process with prizes for top performers monthly. You can also create sustainability certifications for student housing based on longer-term targets as an added incentive.

A significant amount of waste occurs during move-outs. There is a significant spike at the end of the school year as students dispose of items rather than move them. Staffing student-led outreach programs during move-outs can help ensure items do not end up in landfills when they can be recycled.

Successful campus recycling solutions are widespread, making it unavoidable as you journey across campus or participate in campus events. For example, recycling drives during campus sporting events help keep sustainability efforts front and center. Customized bins that are eye-catching with school colors, mascots, or logos can make bins stand out to further promote recycling on campus.

Tracking and Optimization

Any initiatives aimed at improving recycling rates or participation must be linked to data tracking for continual optimization.

Schools need a way to analyze and track capture rates. Analyzing the percentage of recyclable material that is captured for recycling rather than ending up in trash headed for landfills is one way to measure participation and benchmark against goals. Conducting periodic waste audits highlights frequent contamination items to address through re-training.

Throughout recycling initiatives, getting feedback from students and staff is important, too. Surveys and discussion groups can help assess barriers to awareness and participation and suggest ways to improve recycling on campus.

As new infrastructure comes online or incentives are deployed, documenting measurable impact structured around key performance indicators becomes vital. Does a building seeing decreased recycling also have reduced access to bins or frequency issues reported? Are students citing overflowing dumpsters or contamination as frustrations that lower involvement?

The strengths of any campus recycling program lie in its agility to respond to pain points through data-driven prioritization. Setting baselines along factors like recycling rate, participation levels, or contamination occurrences enables focused target setting as well.

A Comprehensive, Coordinated Approach to Campus Recycling Solutions

By taking a comprehensive approach—eliminating infrastructure obstacles, incentivizing student participation through existing systems, and tracking performance rigorously—institutions transform recycling into a positive campus culture.

Students then carry forward the awareness into communities beyond graduation. In this continuum, universities provide the critical launchpad to scale environmental impact.

E&I Cooperative Services can help you achieve your recycling goals. With ready-to-use contracts, competitively solicited from leading providers, E&I Cooperative Services leverages the bulk buying power of its 6,000 member institutions to reduce procurement costs and streamline the purchasing process.

As the only member-owned, non-profit sourcing cooperative focused exclusively on the education community, E&I Cooperative Services’ competitive solicitation process results in pricing, terms, and conditions that are favorable to schools.

You can view available contracts for sustainable solutions with no obligation and no minimum purchasing requirements.

Find available campus recycling solutions to help meet your sustainability initiatives. View available contracts from E&I Cooperative Services today.


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