Students Have No Idea What to Recycle

As an environmental science major with a minor in sustain­ability at UWT, I have recent­ly become passionate about recycling. As a bit of a neurotic, the thought of a highly efficient recycling program soothes me as much as the thought of a looming mountain of garbage panics me. And while I am learning that sus­tainability is a complex concept, recy­cling is a simple practice that every resident can easily participate in… right?

Based on a cursory glance, it is clear that there is a complete lack of discern shown for what goes into the garbage and recycling bins on our campus. Walk by any pair of blue and brown bins and you will see Starbucks cups and dirty napkins in the recycling bin while wa­ter bottles and soda cans have been tossed in the garbage. Most students I saw didn’t even look to see what bin they threw their trash in; they usually just picked the least full one. I decided to lead by example. Not only would I make sure to recycle properly, but I would try, casually and with all deli­cacy, to educate those I saw misusing the bins. But if I was going to assume this self-appointed position of author­ity, I needed to make sure I knew what I was talking about.

I set out to get my questions an­swered and to see what students gener­ally thought. I surveyed a small number of UWT students (30) and asked them into which bin (garbage or recycling) they would put items that I myself had not been sure about in the past. The biggest misconception (93%) was that Starbucks cups (and other disposable paper cups) can be recycled. Starbucks cups contain a plastic liner that keeps the hot liquid from soaking through the paper. Therefore, Starbucks cups are not recyclable. Is glass recyclable? Of course, but it is not to be thrown in with the mixed recycling. Recycling bags are handled by human hands and glass shards sticking out of them is haz­ardous. The 50/50 survey split on this question was worrisome.

Let’s say you buy a refrigerated sand­wich from West Coast Grocery (i.e. chicken salad, ham/cheese). These come in clear plastic clam-shell containers. Are these recyclable? According to the City of Tacoma’s recycling website, these are recyclable. They are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), or plastic #1, which a customer-service dispatch representative for the Tacoma’s solid waste utility told me via e-mail is a com­monly recycled type of plastic. Just rinse them out and toss them in! Many stu­dents weren’t sure about this, as the garbage versus recycling bin split was 50/50. Plastic tubs, such as cottage cheese, are commonly made of PP (polypropylene), or plastic #5, and are also recyclable. Students sensed that this thicker plastic was probably recy­clable, with 73% saying they would put tubs in the blue bin.

But while many plastic bottles, jars, and tubs can go into the recycling bin, their lids do not go with them. These are often made from a different type of plastic that is not recyclable. Once again, many students had heard this somewhere because 53% knew that lids go into the garbage. But plastic bags (such as those from Subway) are okay, as well as nearly all paper, aluminum, and cardboard.

The confusion likely stems from the counterintuitive fact that recycling for the City of Tacoma is separate from Pierce County recycling, despite the fact that Tacoma is within Pierce Coun­ty. Therefore, if you are used to the rules of Murrey’s, LeMay’s, University Place Refuse, or Pierce County Disposal, you are likely throwing away items that Ta­coma accepts. For example, Pierce County does not accept what they call “crinkly” plastic (Arrowhead water bottles fall under this category) because it gets tangled in their machines, but Tacoma does. They also do not accept plastic bags but these are okay for Ta­coma.

This is baffling to me. As a respon­sible resident, should I carry each city’s recycling rules around with me and consult them whenever I go to throw something away? Should I commit them to memory? Should I take any garbage I accumulate while in class home with me to sort it out properly, or, since upon inspection Tacoma seems to be more accepting than Lakewood, should I take all my garbage from home to school and sort it out there?

There are certain obligations a re­sponsible citizen has to his or her gov­ernment (voting, taxes, abiding by laws, etc.) and there are certain obligations a government has to its citizens. Now that sustainability is no longer a lofty concept of the idealistic, but a pressing need that governments are straining to address, the state of Washington could do its part by standardizing recycling guidelines: at the least, within counties, at the most, throughout the state. If small-scale recycling centers need to upgrade their equipment for that to happen, the legislature should strive to provide support. It takes a combination of effort and infrastructure to create effective, long-lasting change.

I bristle whenever I hear about the apathy of today’s youth. I do not see apathy, I see ambivalence. With no con­sistency on what can be recycled where, many just stop trying to puzzle it out. “Everything goes in the garbage,” may not be a satisfactory principle, but at least it’s a simple one. My generation is not complacent, we’re just confused.