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MIT Works To Improve Recycling On Campus

By Jacqueline Tio

MIT Facilities and various campus environmental advocacy groups have made a pledge to reach the city goal recycling rate of 40 percent by 2005, said Kevin J. Healy, of Facilities Recycling and Waste Management Office. The goal was set by the vice mayor of Cambridge, Henrietta Davis, under the Climate Protection Plan.

MIT’s recycling rate last month was 24 percent, an improvement over the 11 percent recycling rate in 2000, reflecting MIT’s efforts towards achieving the goal

Recycling rate is defined as the mass of material recycled as a percentage of total waste, according to the MIT Environment, Health, and Safety Office Web site.

MIT compares rates with others

MIT looks to other universities to learn about recycling techniques.

“Harvard is ahead of us ... but that’s just friendly competition for 2005,” Healy said. MIT and Harvard often share practices to find those that work best, he said.

“They learned from us too,” said Healy, referring to MIT’s efficient method of reusing furniture before it is thrown away.

“Being on an urban campus adds to the challenge,” he said. Just to prevent recycling bins from being contaminated and rejected by vendors, several recycling bins have to be tightly secured with locks.

However, recycling bins are not the only important factor. The jump in MIT’s recycling rates comes largely from improved handling of food waste and recyclable cardboard, and also from construction and demolition recycling, “green” purchasing, and energy conservation, Healy said.

Recycling differs across campus

Anne C. Wasserman and Sally M. Honda, co-chairs of the Working Group Recycling Task Group, are working to increase the number of people who recycle among the MIT staff and administration.

“The majority of the staff is not recycling,” Healy said.

To address this problem, Wasserman and Honda are working to create the Staff Recycling Ambassadors Network work with recycling advocacy groups and MIT staff.

Healy said that dormitories have a decent recycling record.

“Almost all houses do a very good job when somebody in the house is gun-ho,” Healy said.

He said that certain houses recycle more because they have active members from environmental advocacy groups such as Share A Vital Earth.

“We pick up quite a bit” from dormitories, Healy said.

In fact, dormitories do not generate a large fraction of the overall waste at MIT.

Justin Adams of the Environmental, Health, and Safety Office said food waste, from both preparation and refuse, is the biggest contributor to waste on campus.

This includes materials used in packaging the food such as cardboard boxes and plastic containers.

Adams said he is assembling a comprehensive food waste recycling program to save the enormous amounts of waste generated by food production and distribution.

“It would be great if we could get the refuse after” food consumption, Healy said.

Through a combination of these and other efforts, solid waste has declined by 5 percent since last year, he said.

Recent waste audits conducted by the freshman advising seminar, Achieving MIT’s Environmental Goals, revealed that of the presorted trash from the Student Center, 75-80 percent was still recyclable. The Student Center is the third largest generator of trash by volume on campus.

MIT has many reasons to recycle

MIT, along with the city of Cambridge, Harvard, local hospitals, and major companies, is working towards the 40% recycling rate goal.

“There is no legislative mandate,” said Wasserman. “It’s about the spirit of environmental responsibility. We want to create a green team of major businesses in Cambridge, schools, non-profit organizations, and residences,” she said.

Apart from the city-wide goal, MIT has financial incentive to recycle. Healy said that recyclables decrease the cost of disposing trash.

Recycling can also bring in money in other ways.

“By going after cardboard and bale, it’s a commodity. We can sell them and pretty much get a rebate,” Healy said.

Several efforts are being made to increase the number of cardboard balers across campus, including placing one in the Student Center. Cardboard can be compacted by machine into bales to conserve space, Healy said.

Conservation in computer use can also reduce costs significantly.

“Given that MIT has about 3,500 administration and support staff, $175,000 a year in savings could be made” by simply putting computer monitors on power-save mode, Wasserman said. Even printing on both sides of paper can save an additional $50,000 a year, she said.

Another aspect of recycling involves green purchasing and power management. From ordering paper with recycled content to using remanufactured toner cartridges to power management of computers, groups at MIT are working vigorously to make recycling widespread, Wasserman said.

Space, awareness are concerns

A major limiting factor in recycling is space.

“It was hard for E52 [Sloan building] and W20 [Student Center], especially around the kitchens,” to provide the space necessary for cardboard balers, Healy said.

Lack of sufficiently trained staff and general unawareness also poses problems. Healy said that especially at MIT, it is assumed that people know more than they actually do.

Cost is also a factor and financial restraints ultimately force recycling groups to think creatively, Wasserman said.

Demolition recycling praised

Although construction and demolition crews are constantly at work, they are doing so with an environmentally-aware conscience. The demolition of Buildings 45, E10, and E20 actually garnered praise by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection because 96 percent of the waste was recycled, Adams said.

“The parking garage [torn down for the Stata Center] reached a recycling rate of 99 percent,” he said.