Reduce, Reuse, but Should You Recycle?


Photo by Olivia Kaiser

Say you’re eating at one of the many dining services RIT provides — Crossroads, for example. You’re eating a fish fry sandwich with a side of fries and you take it to go in a plastic container. Once you’re finished, you (hopefully) clean your area and go to throw away that little plastic container. Standing in front of the garbage bins, you see the recycling options for papers and plastics. Your container is plastic, you realize, so you dump your waste into recycling, leaving Crossroads with a sense of satisfaction. Congratulations, you’ve saved the world!

But of course, recycling is a lot more complicated than that.

What's Recyclable in the First Place?

In a Smithsonian magazine article, Robert Reed — a spokesperson for resource recovery company Recology — spoke about waste, recyclable or not.

“All garbage goes somewhere; it does not go away," Reed said. "So we must all take more responsibility to sort our discards into the proper bins.”

"All garbage goes somewhere; it does not go away."

Many people aren’t actually sure what distinguishes a recyclable item, such as a plastic container, from something that isn’t, such as a plastic bag. There’s also the concern about what state your item should be in when you recycle. Recycling isn't just throwing the designated waste away. The process on our part is much more complicated.

On RIT’s campus, there are two systems in place to combat garbage. There’s the single stream system, which is the system of recycling bins scattered around the campus, and the Ozzi system. The Ozzi system is unique in its use of reusable to-go containers, rather than disposable ones such as the aforementioned plastic containers. Especially for freshmen, this system allows diners to take out meals from Gracie’s, Sol’s Underground and Brick City Café using this green alternative.

The Complications

However, what really is the difference between the two recycling systems? Is one better than the other? The short answer is yes. Generally, the Ozzi system would be considered the better alternative in the larger scheme of things. The long answer, however, would be that recycling is rather nonproductive in its current form, as third year Fine Art Photography major Noah Winslow explained.

“The state of recycling at RIT is the same as [any other college],” Winslow said. “There’s a lot of contamination in recycling. A lot of things that shouldn’t be put in recycling are put in there.”

Winslow currently serves as president of Student Environmental Action League and recycling coordinator for RIT. The contamination he references consists of any “non-recyclables [that] are placed in recycling,” as written in the Planet Blue project as part of the University of Michigan. Contamination would then include everything from food waste to plastic bags. Thus, when people in charge of recycling see the contaminated recyclable items, they have to send it all to the landfill.

Basically, to properly recycle within the dining areas of RIT, you would have to clean these containers of any food residue. Even then, liquids are considered foodstuffs as part of the contamination of materials. Therefore, for someone who simply wants to throw away their items and go straight to class, recycling can be more of a commitment than what it seems to be.

“Recycling is just way too complicated ... and single stream recycling isn’t really working,” explained Winslow. “Really, the focus should be on reducing whatever students — or really anyone — throw away.”

 “Really, the focus should be on reducing whatever students — or really anyone — throw away.”

The reduction of waste, as Winslow described it, is probably the best way for students to make a difference. Rather than leaving it up to the student’s discretion what they decide to recycle, it’s just easier for both those who want to recycle and those who go through the recycled items to erase that choice entirely. This is where the Ozzi system comes in.

The Ozzi System

The Ozzi system is only for a limited number of dining areas around campus. RIT uses green lunchboxes that students don’t have to worry about buying themselves. Not only is the material completely green and recyclable, but it has the ability to keep food hot for longer periods of time and is even microwave safe. Students can also participate in the Ozzi system themselves by bringing their own thermos or silverware to dine with!

Freshman students receive a token to exchange for this reusable container with the cashier in the dining areas the Ozzi system has been instated. Once the student returns the container, they can receive a new token. Though it will restrict a person’s dining options on campus, this is still the better choice if you want to try your hand at going green.

“It’s not easy to recycle — [or] to do it right at least — and it’s not even beneficial [the way it is now],” said Winslow.

His statement is backed by the Scientific American article "Is Recycling Worth It?" that asks whether or not recycling is worth the effort. The recycling process is hindered by higher-than-necessary production costs due to the fact that people don’t properly sort recyclable items from the non-recyclable ones, as well as the contamination problems prevalent within this single stream system.

On a college campus, there’s just not enough time to go through the process of getting rid of the contamination from your plastic containers before recycling. The whole process is entirely out of a student’s way, and there are extremely low chances that the decontamination process on the student end would be deemed acceptable by those overseeing the recycling. It’s simply easier for both parties to reuse items such as to-go Tupperware, focusing on the altogether reduction of waste rather than inefficient recycling.