Project Area: Improved Recycling
Define a challenge
The recycling process today has greatly improved from that of even 10 years ago. However, there is still a lot left to be desired. Recycling rates are still quite low compared to what is being sent to the landfill. The University of Denver campus has a recycling rate of approximately 16%, which illustrates that there is a large potential for an increase in recycling rates.1 Another area for improvement is contamination, which is one of the biggest problems with current recycling processes. When the wrong item is placed in a recycling bin it can contaminate every other recycled item, meaning that any contaminated item can no longer be recycled.
The goal for this project is to improve the recycling process, whether through reducing contamination rates or simply increasing the rate of recycling itself.
Some of our dreams for recycling include a recycling can that is "cool" to use, a process that quickly sorts/determines the correct locations for a given item, or a new bin that reduces/prevents contamination. Current recycling bins and techniques often lack the necessary information to aid in the user placing a given item in the correct bin.
Things we already know
- There is a high percentage of recycled materials that become contaminated and then can no longer be recycled
- The sustainability club often has to come to the library and other areas to sort the waste before sending it to the dumpsters
- Lots of materials that can actually be recycled are being sent to the landfill
Waste (Recycling) Infographics
As you can see in the infographics above, not only is the US ranked 18th in the world in recycling at 35%, but Colorado has a recycling rate slightly lower than the national average, Denver has a lower recycling rate than the Colorado average, and the University of Denver is lower still. The ideal distribution would flip this infographic with our local communities working to drive an increase in the national average with a bottom up approach. This highlights the large need for users to take part. Before implementing new bins/technologies to help improve recycling rates, people have to care enough to use them.
Chad King Interview (University of Denver Sustainability Coordinator)
Current Problems with Recycling:
- Staff Uncertainty
- At locations like Front Porch Café or WOW Café there is a lot of turn over year to year, even quarter to quarter requiring continuous training regarding what to recycle and what to throw away. There is a learning curve for new staff, and events taking place at new locations.
- Infrastructure issues
- Recycling bins get moved from their designated locations which leads to confusion. Additionally, several different parties are responsible for pickup and sorting at various locations, which inhibits a uniform process from taking place.
- Stand-alone cans
- Diversion rates decrease when recycling and composting bins are not located near landfill bins, as people are less likely to walk an extra distance to a recycling bin when a trash bin is a lot closer.
- Lack of Knowledge/Effort
- One of the biggest issues is that a lots of mistakes are made. People don't seem to care or are unwilling to put the effort into making sure an item gets placed in the right location.
- Low Diversion Rates
- Diversion rate is the combined rates of recycling and composting.
- Campus average: 16%
- City of Denver: 22%
- Colorado: 34%
- Diversion rates increase after training/new information tactics but then revert back to the average within a couple months
- Contamination is another large problem with recycling. Coffee cups purchased on campus are compostable while off-campus cups (Starbucks) are not, leading to contamination goes to a recycling bin in the library and the signage says to compost coffee cups. One of the most common sources of contamination is left over liquid from recycled bottles/cups that leaks on recycled paper, making the paper no longer recyclable.
Past Attempts/Current Practices:
- Sorting does take place before trash is moved to dumpsters in places like AAC by the center for sustainability
- Bin coloring: Compost is green, recycling is blue and landfill is black
- Informational boards, signage and lunch and learns are created to increase recycling knowledge and encourage the practice of recycling and composting
- 4 Rules
- Bins are color coded for their intended purpose
- Vertical signage is located on or near the bins
- Bins are adjustable
- Bins are connected to restrict their separation
- Building report cards
- Attempt to make recycling competitive between departments/buildings, while trying to incentivize and hightlight responsibility regarding recycling
- Technological Solutions
- Sensors have been placed on dumpsters to measure when they are emptied. The sensors also provide approximate averages of the amount of waste/recycled goods in the respective dumpster.
- Lots of requests for composting
- There are several departmental requests for composting but compost liners cost 45 to 60 cents compared to a 3 cent trash liner leading to budgetary decisions. Additionally, composting itself is an expensive process. To help make the decisions the center of sustainability looks at the recycling rates in the building which tend to be low. Therefore the center for sustainability asks for increased recycling rates before implementing compost bins.
- Current Connected Bins Setup
- The bins located in AAC, ECS, Olin, DCB, etc. that have compost, recycling and landfill bins connected currently cost $2000 leading to limitations in what can be changed or altered.
- Staff Uncertainty
Target Market (Audience)
- Students/Faculty on and off campus
- People who want to recycle but are often confused/rushed/make mistakes regarding recycling
- Emphasis on a younger audience in order to form the correct habits early
University of Denver Recycling Statistics/Information
Center for Sustainability Takeaways
As seen in the infographics above, the University of Denver has the potential to reduce the waste going to the landfill by 50% simply by placing waste in the correct bins. Most of this potential reduction involves the correct sorting of waste, such as plastic straws and paper towels. These statistics illustrate that with a few key changes recycling and composting rates could drastically improve.
Observations: Current Waste Bins
The most effective bins that were observed integrated lots of colorful signage with several waste options included in a single structure. Signs at eye level appeared to reduce a lot of the confusion users displayed when signage was lower on the bins, as did utilizing different sized/shaped holes for the various bins, which helped draw users’ attention to their waste decision. Several bins were clearly designed for convenience, while others aimed at offering more options, each designed for a different set of situations/users.
Research Regarding the Results of Gamifying Everyday Tasks
The fun theory was a campaign by Volkswagen designed to test whether people would be driven to be more environmentally friendly if the task was fun to do. The following videos are several of the experiments they performed to test this theory. The theory was proven to be true as a trash can with a sensor that played a sound each time a item was thrown in the bin was gound to have 41 more kg of trash than the next bin, while a staircase made of piano keys encouraged 66% more people to take the stairs than the previous day and a bin with a plinko game taught people to separate the lids from their water bottles to make recycling the bottles easier. Many of the elements of the fun theory could be applied to improving recycling.
 Chad King, Center for Sustainability