Creating a Sustainable Campus: Cost-Effective Campus Recycling Efforts

Colleges and universities play a vital role in shaping future generations and fostering responsible habits. Encouraging sustainable practices is crucial, and campus recycling programs are a key component of this environmental commitment.

With that in mind, let’s examine the benefits of recycling in universities and key strategies to reduce costs while optimizing impact.

What Are 5 Benefits of Recycling for Higher Education Institutions?

Here are five of the biggest benefits colleges and universities get from recycling on campus.

1. The Environmental Impact

Recycling programs mitigate waste generation in several crucial ways. By diverting materials from landfills, they conserve precious space and prevent the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas generated by decomposition. This directly translates to cleaner air and a healthier planet.

Next, consider that recycling conserves precious natural resources. Consider a library brimming with knowledge-filled textbooks. Recycling the paper used in those books requires significantly less energy and raw materials compared to new paper production. This translates to fewer trees felled, less water consumed, and fewer minerals extracted—all contributing to a more sustainable campus.

Recycling also prevents toxins contained in recyclable products from contaminating soil and water when disposed of in landfills.

2. Financial Advantages

Beyond environmental considerations, universities operate within financial realities. Tight budgets have forced procurement teams and facilities managers to tighten their belts, and campus recycling can help. Many recyclable materials hold intrinsic value. Selling sorted recyclables like aluminum cans or paper generates revenue that can be reinvested in further sustainability initiatives or other campus needs.

Diverting waste from landfills translates to reduced disposal fees since waste companies and landfills often charge by weight. The less waste a university sends their way, the lower the costs are. Additionally, many municipalities and organizations offer grants and incentives specifically for institutions with robust recycling programs, providing valuable financial support.

3. Enhanced Reputation

A strong commitment to sustainability is an expectation for today’s students and faculty. Robust recycling in universities as part of a sustainable campus is important in attracting students and staff. Princeton Review reported that 66% of college applicants and parents consider green practices, programs, and course offerings when making their decision about where to attend school.

Highly visible campus recycling programs also position universities as leaders in environmental responsibility. A well-developed recycling program with indoor and outdoor containers built to withstand the weather demonstrates a university’s genuine commitment to the environment.

Partnering with local recycling organizations can strengthen ties with the surrounding community and showcase the university’s commitment to collaborative environmental stewardship. This builds goodwill and strengthens the university’s reputation as a responsible member of the community.

4. Educational Opportunities

What students learn in college goes well beyond the classroom. Recycling programs play a vital role in fostering environmental awareness and inspiring responsible behavior. By integrating recycling initiatives into campus life, universities provide students with hands-on learning opportunities.

Sorting recyclables, participating in composting programs, and learning about the various aspects of the recycling process instill a sense of environmental responsibility that students carry forward throughout their lives. Students involved in different types of university recycling initiatives can become ambassadors for change, educating their peers and the community about responsible waste management and inspiring broader participation.

5. Improved Health and Safety

Recycling’s impact extends beyond the environment and finances, contributing to a healthier and safer campus environment. Proper recycling of hazardous materials like chemicals, batteries, and e-waste prevents harmful substances from entering the environment and posing health risks. This protects students, staff, and the surrounding community from exposure to potentially toxic materials.

Effective recycling programs also contribute to a cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing campus environment. This not only improves the overall quality of life but also reduces the risk of pests and diseases associated with improperly disposed waste.

20 Things That Can Be Recycled on Campus

As part of your waste management solutions, recycling in universities can include a broad range of items. Here are 20 things you can include in your campus recycling program:

  1. Aluminum cans: Soda, beer, juice, and other beverage cans are easily recycled on most campuses. Aluminum cans can be recycled repeatedly without loss in quality.
  2. Steel cans: Food cans made of steel like soup or vegetable cans can go into campus recycling bins. Steel is infinitely recyclable.
  3. Plastic bottles and jugs: From soda bottles to milk jugs, most plastic containers with necks smaller than their bases can be recycled. Remove and discard lids.
  4. Glass bottles and jars: While not as universally accepted as aluminum cans, many campuses take color-sorted glass containers.
  5. Newspapers and magazines: Bundle or bag paper publications for campus paper recycling bins. Keep the paper dry.
  6. Office paper: Loose-leaf paper, envelopes, folders, and other standard office paper items can all be recycled.
  7. Cardboard: Flattened cardboard boxes, food boxes, and shipping packages are standard items in campus recycling streams.
  8. Paperboard: Cereal boxes, shoe boxes, and other lightweight paper products can go into the paper recycling collection.
  9. Paper bags: Brown paper grocery bags, pharmacy bags and other kraft paper bags can be added to paper recycling.
  10. Paper cups: Standard paper hot and cold cups are usually accepted for recycling. Any plastic lids should be removed.
  11. Textbooks: Donate or reuse any old textbooks you aren’t keeping for reference. Many campuses also recycle textbooks.
  12. Notebooks and folders: Recycle used notebooks, binders, folders, and other supplies at campus paper collection points.
  13. Newspaper bags: Bags used to protect newspapers delivered on campus can be added to paper recycling bins.
  14. Pizza boxes: As long as they don’t have major grease or food waste, pizza delivery boxes can be recycled—minus the uneaten pizza slices!
  15. Aluminum foil: Clean aluminum foil can be recycled with other aluminum items. Consider reuse before recycling.
  16. Gift wrap: Any holiday gift wrap paper that cannot be reused, provided it’s not metallic or plastic coated, can be recycled after presents are opened.
  17. Electronics: E-waste bins help students properly recycle old phones, computers, chargers, and other electronic items.
  18. Batteries: Federal law mandates that certain types of batteries, including lead acid batteries, lithium-based, and nickel-cadmium batteries must be recycled.
  19. Clothing and textiles: Donate wearable clothes and linens or put damaged items in textile recycling collection bins.
  20. Kitchenware: Rather than trash plates, cups, bowls, and utensils made of glass, plastic, or metal, check if your campus dining services can reprocess and reuse them.

10 Ways to Reduce Waste on Campus

Beyond the everyday paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum recycling streams found in campus buildings, dining halls, and dorms, there are other types of university recycling programs. Here are 10 ways to better promote sustainability and responsible resource use by targeting additional waste items for recycling.

1. Organics Collections

Food waste makes up a significant portion of college trash. Many schools now collect leftover, spoiled, and contaminated food scraps for municipal composting programs.

On-site composting enables campuses to use this nutritious organic matter to fertilize their own grounds. Some institutions take organic recycling even further by recycling food-soiled napkins and paper towels, or recycling waste oils from campus kitchens into biofuels.

2. Construction and Demolition Materials

New building projects, renovations, and structural repairs or demolitions on college campuses generate tons of wood, concrete, asphalt, drywall, and metal scrap materials. Campuses are finding recyclers to take many of these leftover debris materials like wood chips, crushed concrete aggregates, or metal bits to be made into new goods. This cuts down on landfilling and saves costs on refuse hauling.

3. Laboratory Chemicals

College science labs go through supplies of testing reagents, chemical mixtures, test tubes, funnels, and protective equipment regularly. By establishing recycling systems through chemical waste management companies, fewer usable compounds, glassware, and plastics end up wastefully discarded. The recycled lab materials are cleaned and processed into new scientific tools and supplies.

4. Furnishings and Fixtures

Reduce, reuse, and recycle examples for colleges include desks, tables, shelving units, cabinetry, and other furnishings removed from remodeled offices and facilities, which may still have usable life.

Some schools are developing campus swap programs to reuse these items internally or donate them to local charities. Recycling saves these quality wood and metal articles from landfills and stretches campus budgets further.

5. Scrap Metal Recovery

School machine, welding, manufacturing, and automotive shops generate metal scraps daily. Recycling pieces of aluminum, steel, iron, copper, and other metals at local scrappers and reprocessors offers both environmental and monetary savings.

6. Used Cooking Oil Recycling

Deep fryers in campus dining kitchens and cafeterias produce a significant waste of vegetable oil from frying foods. Instead of paying for cooking-oil waste disposal, universities can have the oil recycled into biodiesel fuel, animal feed, soap, and other products. This cuts hazardous runoff and helps the eco-friendly fuel industry.

7. Ink and Toner Cartridges

Printer labs, offices, libraries, and study centers consume a high volume of toner and inkjet cartridges over the school year. Multiple manufacturers and retailers now provide postage-paid envelopes to return used cartridges for proper cleaning and refurbishing instead of tossing them out.

8. Mattresses and Furnishings

College residence halls, apartments, and Greek houses constantly cycle through used mattresses, couches, desks, and other room furnishings. Waste often spikes during move-out periods when students prefer to discard rather than move items.

Campuses can coordinate with community groups and thrift stores to pick up these bulky items for reuse instead of junking them. This saves disposal costs while benefitting needy individuals.

9. Used Sporting Goods

Fitness centers, sports teams, and athletic departments use large supplies of sporting equipment. Reusing equipment internally or donating to community centers and schools helps conserve resources while promoting healthy activities.

10. Electronic Waste

Electronic waste, including old computers, phones, printers, and batteries, represents a growing challenge for universities. Establishing dedicated e-waste drop-off points allows students and staff to responsibly dispose of these items, preventing harmful materials from entering landfills and encouraging proper recycling or refurbishment. Partnering with e-waste recycling companies ensures the safe and ethical processing of these materials.

How Can Colleges and Universities Improve Recycling Programs Cost Efficiently?

For universities and colleges striving toward a greener future, fostering waste management solutions can seem daunting, especially with tight budgets and capital commitments to higher-priority requests. However, there are a few strategies to mitigate costs.


Companies eager to connect with student populations often see sponsoring campus recycling bins as a valuable opportunity. These brand-emblazoned bins not only raise awareness for the sponsor but also generate revenue for the university, contributing to program sustainability.

There are also grants offered by various entities. The recently enacted Infrastructure Law encourages public-private partnerships and makes some funds available to implement innovative recycling solutions. States may also offer dedicated funding mechanisms, providing a welcome financial boost.

Phased Approach

For institutions wary of large upfront investments, a phased rollout strategy can prove particularly effective. By focusing on high-traffic areas first, universities can establish proof of concept and gather valuable data before expanding the program.

This measured approach allows for adjustments and optimizations, ensuring long-term success.


Simple, yet impactful changes can significantly improve existing recycling infrastructure. Implementing clear signage with consistent color coding for different waste streams eliminates confusion and reduces contamination rates, ultimately saving on sorting costs. Similarly, modifying bin lids or openings to accommodate specific materials further enhances the user experience and encourages proper disposal.


Investing in educational programs for students, staff, and faculty yields substantial dividends. By fostering a clear understanding of what can be recycled and how to sort it effectively, universities can dramatically reduce contamination rates. Effective education empowers students and staff to actively participate in sustainable practices, creating a ripple effect beyond the immediate program.

Optimizing Operations

Taking a critical look at waste management workflows presents opportunities for streamlining processes and generating cost savings. Analyzing hauling schedules, pickup routes, load consolidation practices, and sorting steps can reveal areas for improvement, allowing universities to optimize their overall waste management strategy.


By leveraging the collective buying power of organizations like E&I Cooperative Services, universities can significantly reduce the cost of recycling bins and associated accessories. Cooperative contracts negotiate bulk purchase agreements, ensuring cost-effective solutions for participating institutions.

E&I Cooperative Services is the only member-owned, non-profit sourcing cooperative that focuses exclusively on the education community. Membership is free and provides access to competitively solicited contracts with leading organizations at significantly reduced prices to help you build a sustainable campus.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is recycling a good solution for higher education?

Yes. Campus recycling not only contributes to environmental sustainability but also offers financial advantages, enhances the institution’s reputation, provides educational opportunities, and improves health and safety on campus.

How can schools encourage active participation in recycling programs among students and staff?

Universities can promote recycling through clear communication, educational campaigns, and incentives such as recognition or rewards for active participants. Collaborating with student organizations and integrating recycling into campus events can also boost engagement.

Can I customize campus recycling bins?

You can customize your recycling bins to include school colors, logos, or mascots. You can also include logos from partner agencies or sponsors. Make sure you use a consistent color scheme across campus for easy identification and high visibility.

Contact E&I Cooperative Services today to view available contracts for campus recycling and waste management solutions. 


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