Two years ago, an on-campus sustainability campaign posted “when in doubt, recycle” stickers on the university’s blue and black bins; a simple message that quite literally stuck and can still be seen around Cal Poly today. 

The California State University system set Zero Waste goals for all 23 of its campuses to meet. The next system-wide goal was 80 percent landfill diversion — referring to the percent of total waste produced on campus that is recycled or composted instead of thrown out — by 2020.

Cal Poly has already surpassed this goal with diversion rates of more than 89 and 86 percent for 2016 and 2017. However, “when in doubt, recycle” is not what got it there.

The diversion rate of student and faculty trash around campus, which includes all regular-use bins around campus like those outside classrooms and those for dining hall compost, is increasing, but has low rates overall. In 2017, only 29 percent of campus population trash was diverted from landfills, even though approximately 50 percent of campus population trash is recyclable material.

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Cal Poly’s Zero Waste Coordinator Anastasia Nicole said university facilities are what give Cal Poly such high diversion rates.

“We have really heavy waste streams that are making up for public trash,” Nicole said. “Cement is heavy and that gets recycled for construction. And if we were not an agricultural college, we wouldn’t have such good diversion rates.”

If Cal Poly did not have heavy agricultural waste to compost and recycle, the campus diversion rate for 2017 would have been 72 percent, below the 80 percent 2020 goal.

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Nicole, who began at Cal Poly in February, wants to improve student and faculty diversion by increasing recycling education, signage and visibility of blue bins. One thing she does not want to continue, despite the 50 percent of recycled material in campus trash, is “when in doubt, recycle”.

“I am saying we are one of the finest universities in the world, [so] why is there any doubt what is recyclable?” Nicole said. “People think it will just get sorted out at the facility, but the more contamination there is, the harder it is for them to pick out recycling and the less efficient they become.”

San Luis Obispo’s recycling facility, Cold Canyon Processing Facility, services the entire county. Facility manager John Ryan said contamination from trash in recycling streams is a major issue.

“When in doubt, throw it out. Anything else is irresponsible and almost laughable,” Ryan said. “Contamination is a real bearcat. I’m sending 800 tons of trash from blue bins to our landfill a month. It’s a real problem on an operational problem to do that level of separation, it fouls up our equipment and costs us a lot of money.”

The facility center has a 34 member staff and much of their time is spent doing quality control and removing contamination. Ryan said the contamination rate from Cal Poly is the highest in the county at 32 percent. Most San Luis Obispo communities hover around 20 and 25 percent contamination.

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“I think university itself has a responsibility to ever educate the changing population, and if they still have stickers on any blue bins to recycle when in doubt, [a responsibility to] to remove them, because it’s an absolutely ridiculous idea,” Ryan said.

Nicole is focusing on getting educational signage on every bin on campus to better explain what can and cannot be recycled.

“One of the problems with our recycling rate is that people come to this campus from all over the country and from different recycling programs that collect different stuff,” Nicole said. “Our mixed recycling is pretty easy, it is just five things: paper, cardboard, glass,  plastic and aluminum. Of course, it’s not all plastic or metal.”

However, Nicole also recognizes that with 50 percent of the campus population’s trash actually being garbage at the moment, the campus cannot recycle its way to zero waste.  

“The idea is to minimize waste by not buying garbage in the first place There’s a lot of single-use stuff the campus buys, and when we buy it we know we’re buying garbage,” Nicole said. “So we’re trying to look at all that purchasing and purchase stuff that can be used multiple times.”

How to know what can and cannot be recycled

Biological sciences junior and vice president of Cal Poly’s Zero Waste Club Dylan Stevens said students should look at San Luis Obispo’s Integrated Waste Management Authority website if they are uncertain how a material should be disposed of. On the website, visitors can type in any product to see which bin it belongs in.

Some of the most common recycling mistakes that lead to contamination are plastic bags (including trash, grocery and ziplock), thin plastic film, plastic utensils, food containers of mixed materials and straws. Stevens also said students should be wary of Plastic No. 6, such as Styrofoam and packaging materials, as it can almost never be recycled.

“Students often don’t know what’s recyclable, but it doesn’t take much time to find out,” Stevens said. “At the end of the day, it’s something so simple for each individual person to properly sort their trash, but it could make such a visible difference if people cared just a tiny amount.”

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