The Veil of Luxury and Ease

If you didn’t know already, “off Grounds” at UVa is synonymous to “off campus.” Why stick with the snooty, exclusive jargon? From what I’ve been told, Thomas Jefferson, founder of UVa, didn’t want a title like “campus” to restrict where learning can take place. A word like “grounds” suggests an expansive plane with no boundaries compared to “campus” that has defined limits. I have found TJ’s vision to be true since apparently the introductory theater class has their final on the Corner, a strip of restaurants right by UVa’s Grounds. For my fiction writing class a while back, my professor had office hours at the local coffee shop on the corner, Para Coffee.

Para Coffee is located on Elliewood Ave. Mmmmmm, hipster coffee. Or, if you’re like me, tea. Image from http://www.readthehook.com.

Now, after being a first-year student (ok, more UVa jargon here. “First year” refers to “freshmen” — think Harry Potter!), students may choose to live on- or off-Grounds. On-Grounds means university housing whereas off-Grounds means renting a house/apartment, furnishing it yourself, and having to pay for utilities. In my previous years at UVa, I’ve lived in on-Grounds housing, from first-year dorms to upperclassmen apartment housing. On-Grounds housing certainly proved convenient since you didn’t have to worry about recycling and waste management. You simply had to take out your recyclables and trash to the designated location where you lived and deposited them there. However, this year, I now live off-Grounds and I get to worry about the glories of paying for utilities.

Paying for waste disposal for off-Grounds residents is fairly cheap. My current household uses Dixon disposal, a local company to Abermarle County, which claims to be “all-in-one-can recycling.” This means that all recyclables and trash go into one bin and the company will sort recyclables from trash. I’ve heard many people challenge the notion of “all-in-one-can recycling,” claiming that recyclables get “contaminated” by food products and thus are no longer considered recyclable. In his article about local waste and recycling programs, David McNair provides a great example saying that newspaper that gets covered in last night’s lasagna will just end up in a landfill, not recycled. Another argument against all-in-one-can recycling is the idea that these companies physically cannot be 100% efficient in their recycling. Some recyclables may escape their eyes while others, such as in the newspaper-lasagna example, aren’t suitable any longer to be recycled.

Sure, a clean, unused pizza box is recyclable, but what about a pizza box after a greasy take-out pizza has been sitting in it for a while? Image from http://blogs.oregonstate.edu

On Dixon’s website, they address these challenges directly on their website, saying that of the companies that ask their customers to sort their recycling, only 6% actually sort their recyclables and the other 94% goes into the trash without another look. They also claim that all-in-one-can recycling offers their customers the luxury and ease of putting everything into one bin. No worries or questions about what can or cannot be recycled. Dixon even claims that all-in-one-can recycling is the “future of trash.” But is it really?

With both sides of the argument in mind, what now? As a theoretical student living off-Grounds, would you choose to use Dixon or a company that makes you sort your recycling? From what friends around me have said, I personally believe that while Dixon’s intentions are in the right direction but recycling 100% of the recyclables in the trash is impossible. Plus, as addressed, the contamination (newspaper-lasagna) issue that Dixon claims they clean. Dixon dazzles you with tossing around huge numbers like saying that they spend “$15 million in recycling equipment and nearly 120 employees to MAKE SURE that the trash is cleaned and recycled properly.” (The capitalization is directly from the website, it is not added for emphasis.) My answer: Will $15 million really go towards cleaning my lasagna-ified newspaper?

Different sized recycling bins, all ready to be used! Image from charlottesville.org

Thankfully, I have found a solution that I can live with. The city of Charlottesville offers a free recycling program for residents. They have now expanded what they can recycle (plastics 1-7, previously only plastics 1 and 2). I went to the city of Charlottesville’s website to get more information about the free recycling program. It was super-easy to sign up, too. I simply sent an e-mail to recycling@charlottesville.org and told them that I wish to participate in their recycling program at my address. Within a few days, a clean recycling bin was at my doorstep, ready to be used! While the recycling pick up is only once every two weeks, I can deal just fine with that. I have extra recycling bins lying around from previous residents for use as well. The city of Charlottesville tells residents that they can switch to a larger or smaller bin depending on a household’s amount of recyclables. One setback of this particular recycling program is that they do not accept bottle caps since bottle caps can damage their recycling machinery due to their small size. Fair enough. Still, bottle caps can pile up over time, resulting in ultimately large amounts of plastic that are not recycled.

Curious as to what you can recycle through the city of Charlottesville? All the answers are here! Image from charlottesville.org

I feel more comfortable using Charlottesville’s recycling program and Dixon’s trash program together since I’m confident that the trash goes with the trash and the recycling goes with the recycling. As for the bottle caps, hopefully Dixon recycles them! Dixon’s vision that they present to households certainly strikes the right notes, but I feel that other measures can be taken to avoid spending $15 million in recycling equipment.

  • Education: If more people were educated about what can and cannot be recycled, then people wouldn’t even consider Dixon’s all-in-one-can program. I find it hard to believe that only 6% of people that utilize trash vs. recycling self-sorting programs properly recycle. Certainly, the number is higher in some places compared to others, but why the discrepancy? It boils down to education. People need to be educated of what can/cannot be recycled as well as have the right motivation to recycle. For instance, if they do not recycle, lots of plastic waste may end up in the Great Pacific Garbage patch, resulting in declines in fish population due to the pollutants from plastic bits being broken up. Not only do declines in fish populations influence fishermen, a sick fish population can affect consumers, such as people who eat the fish that consumed the plastic pollutants.
  • The Veil of Luxury and Ease: Sure, Dixon is trying to accommodate households by claiming that participants do not have to sort their recyclables, but does this really enforce good habits? For instance, if Dixon participants move somewhere else, they may have to learn how to recycle at the new location or recycling may be an intuitive part of a place’s culture. Going back to my point about education, it’s better to raise awareness and knowledge of how and why to recycle rather than staying in the dark. It’s not hard to separate recyclables and the fact that companies like Dixon claim their trash/recycling pick up methods are to make things “easier” only enforces the belief that recycling is “hard.”
  • Dixon’s Missing Numbers: While Dixon’s FAQ on their website addressed the “contamination controversy,” they did not provide any numbers as to how much of the contaminated recycling is successfully recycled. I’d be shocked if the numbers were in a high percentile since there’s only so much cleaning can do. In theory, Dixon could save their $15 million by educating their participants to avoid contaminated recyclables. The city of Charlottesville’s graphic (above) makes it easy to follow recycling rules and is distributed as flyers (which mine is hung on my fridge) and on the lid of their recycling bin. Dixon could likewise create graphics to increase participant awareness and education.
Labels left to right: Green glass, brown glass, white glass. Go, Germany! Image from http://equipeevoke.com

A Better Future

While I’m not an expert, other countries like Germany do a much better job recycling than in America. While Charlottesville’s single-stream recycling program does offer participants the option to recycle, are all of the recyclables being properly recycled? What about the plastic cap issue? Taking my example of Germany, Germany sorts their recycling into categories like paper and glass. Some places even go as far as sorting out the different types of glass (brown, white, green, etc.)! (My hometown once had residents sort recyclables but switched over to single-stream recycling which I suppose was to make it easier for residents.) When I visited Berlin in April 2011, I toured the Berliner Pilsner factory and saw the brewing process from start to finish. We started in a room filled with brown bottles, all recycled, which went through all sorts of conveyor belts to be cleaned before being reused by the company. My point? Hopefully cities in America will one day be as efficient as countries like Germany in their recycling and recycling will be intuitive to the entire population. For now, having my recycling in one bin and trash in the other will have to do.

Feature image from http://www.glogster.com/

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