A team of Illinois college students is trying to get to the bottom of bad recycling habits. Undergraduate students Caleb Froidcoeur and Marissa Jones headed up a waste management study based at the University of Illinois Springfield. It examined how the public interacted with bedazzled recycling bins. I spoke with them about the results.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
SD: Bedazzled recycling bins; what's that all about?
CF: "The origination for that idea came from one of the faculty, Carolee Rigsbee. Her idea is that having some recycling bins that look nicer than just regular plain old recycling bins will inspire people to recycle more, and possibly recycle more of the correct materials."
MJ: "In this research project, the bedazzled bins consisted of a green bin with an aesthetic nature image on it, with a pretty green frog compared to a typical plain blue recycling bin. Then, across four to five weeks, we recorded the weight of recycled materials and these bins and then tested that data to see if there were more recyclables in the bedazzled bins, or if they were more efficiently recycled. We learned a lot about the behaviors here [at] UIS."
SD: So what did you end up finding out? Did cool looking recycling bins make a difference?
CF: "At the end of this experiment, after we took a look at all the data, we came to the realization that there's really not much of a correlation between the aesthetics on the bin itself and how much was recycled. It seemed like the most important factor in any situation is how close the recycling bin is to the person disposing the recyclable material."
MJ: "I would say of the materials that we found, we found consistent materials that were wrongly recycled: the Starbucks materials here on campus, the cups and straws, specifically napkins and chip bags as well. I think that is also that is giving us incentive to re-educate and spread this awareness across campus."
CF: "One of the primary concerns that residents life has had is the idea of contamination. Once trash or something that's not recyclable gets into the recycling bins or the recycling dumpster, and there's enough of that non-recyclable material, it contaminates the whole thing. There's going to be charged to Residence Life because they're using this recycling dumpster for something that's not recyclable. That's why we're putting out this huge educational campaign, so we can try to prevent that contamination from ever happening."
SD: How are you going to apply the results? Are you planning on making any recommendations to the administration, or [do you have] any follow up projects that you've gotten the works?
CF: "This semester, Residence Life actually submitted a Green Project proposal for some recycling bins. We're working heavily with Residence Life to implement a kind of recycling overhaul on campus, where we'll be putting new bins into the residential areas. We're drawing up and educational program for the RAs to teach to the residents and the area. We're putting out signs and flyers and everything with educational materials so that people know what is and isn't recyclable. We’ve been working with Res. Life ever since last semester!"
MJ: "It [the proposal] has really moved forward, and really complimented this research project as well. These bedazzled bins that we received from a grant from Pepsi have actually already been implemented into a few residential spaces. So it's nice that students are getting to see these bins that we researched with as well. We're going to be expanding on it and implementing more bins and seeing how they can work efficiently and these residential spaces."
SD: One of the goals of your research you write is sustainability, essentially making eco friendly decisions. Why is that a big deal?
CF: "Sustainability means a lot to me, but [it’s] just getting it implemented on campus and getting other people to see it the way I do. From my point of view, we've got one planet and we're putting it through the wringer right now, and I'd like future generations to be able to appreciate it in the same way that I have."
MJ: "My big drive was sustainability is just sharing awareness of these issues and also the concerns and making people feel that even as one person or maybe just a small group, you can really make an impact, or at least lead into something that can have a larger overall outcome."
SD: I want to ask you about a couple of general things: China isn't accepting bulk plastic for recycling. Does that pose a problem for future recycling efforts, like what you're trying to do?
CF: "It basically means that our landfills are going to fill up faster than they were before. We're already kind of stressed for landfill space in Illinois specifically; I think we're are going to run out of landfill space by 2020 or 2022 or something like that. We’re basically out of time, and with China as an option no longer on the table, I really don't know what we’ll end up doing."
"We've got one planet and we're putting it through the wringer right now. I'd like future generations to be able to appreciate it in the same way that I have."
MJ: "I agree. I definitely think it raises some new concerns, and even almost puts people in a panic. We have less than five years left of landfill space here just in Illinois alone. [But] recently I've come across the idea of plastic combustion for fueling. I don't know too much about it, but I think that with us having so many plastic materials, whether it be bottles, packaging, whatnot, not being able to get past the disposal process, instead being able to use those for fueling or energy, that would be a way to compensate this waste. Maybe further research on this idea would be warranted and helpful."
SD: Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker gave his budget address recently, and one of the things that caught our eye about it has to do kind of with what you've been looking into; it's a tax on plastic bags. Is that the right way to go for sustainability efforts? Or does that put too much of an economic burden on people who might not be able to afford much to start with?
MJ: "I do think that it's a step in the right direction, but think that it needs to be enforced in a way that incentivizes everyone and makes everyone aware that [we're] not just doing this to save you money or to try and charge you, but also to, you know, just have you make the greener decision, [which is] better for everyone."
CF: "Yeah, there's tons of people already doing this, and there's tons of people who have completely banned plastic bags. So instead of going the taxation route, they just completely removed the option. I mean, there's no one who hasn't seen no plastic bag drifting cross the street or something, so it'll cut down on the plastic that we have just out in the wild. I don't think it'll put too much of a economic stress on people because you still have the option to not use a plastic bag, you know, just get a reusable bag. I think they're, like, 50 cents or $1."
SD: Any advice for folks who are trying to start up eco-friendly initiatives? What would you tell them to do?
MJ: "Take action and do it. You know, it may seem really small; we’ve had small recycling initiatives, waste audits, sporting event campaigns, and it's really these small events and little actions that raise awareness and also bring inspiration to other students and give them the confidence that they can take similar actions."