Boston universities contest switching to one bin

By Rahul Raghuvanshi


In 2008, when Harvard University Sustainability Officer Rob Gogan rolled out single-stream recycling on campus, the concept was mostly unheard of as neither Cambridge nor Boston had begun using the one-bin concept until 2009.

“The response was ecstatic!” Gogan said. With streamlining, he explained, “we didn’t have to go and talk around” the need to put the right waste in the right bin as in a dual-stream program.

While the city of Boston is fully single-stream now, many private institutions like Boston University and Tufts University seem to be in an experiment mode with both single-stream and dual-stream recycling available on their campuses.

Boston University, which tightened its recycling program in 2009, implements single-stream recycling on its medical school campus, whereas, the Charles River campus continues to use dual-stream recycling.     

Harvard University
Harvard University launched the “one bin” concept much before Cambridge and Boston.

“The university has discussed the possibility of moving to single stream on the Charles River Campus, but we do not yet have plans to do so,” said Recycling Coordinator Lisa Marie Tornatore at Boston University. “Data shows that moving to single stream will increase the recycling rate of an institution by less than 10 percent.”

Tornatore believes that it’s smarter to invest in education than in adopting new recycling concepts. With single-stream recycling, there is a much higher potential for contamination that results in less creation of recycled paper or lower quality materials, she said.

As someone regularly working at Boston University’s medical school campus, 25-year-old Omar Mohtar, a doctor and Ph.D candidate, feels that the single-stream program on the medical campus is not doing well compared to the previous two-bin model.

“The single-stream model was poorly implemented due to lack of janitorial duties being implemented upon the program’s start,” he said. “The dual system, though also flawed in its design, supported a more recognizable model of recycling.”

Tufts University is yet another school that practices dual-stream recycling on campus except for its dental school, which has a single-stream recycling program.

“We tried single-stream bins because we have few opportunities to educate the rotating patient population,” said Tufts University Sustainability Officer Dawn R. Quirk  in Somerville. “Single stream is working better than dual stream worked in the dental school.”

With some universities preferring dual-stream to single-stream recycling, sustainability officers at several university campuses disagree as to which system is best to use. For instance, Emerson College, which has been using dual-stream recycling on campus, is working on switching to single stream this summer.

Emerson College Sustainability Coordinator Eric Van Vlandren pushed the move last year. “Most of the students who come to Emerson come from areas having grown up in single-stream environment,” he said. “It struck me as archaic and old-fashioned and not at all cutting edge to be dual stream.”

The move behind Emerson College’s decision wasn’t just based upon his personal opinion, he argued.  “We were finding that our contamination rates were very high and that it’s confusing to students. When they see a blue bin they are from their childhood conditioned to think that if they can find something recyclable it can go in there and this parsing of the two makes it difficult,” he said.

When the time came to make a final decision, Earth Emerson, a student-run campus environmental group supported the move to go single stream.  “A lot of people came from single stream (environment) and it was difficult for people to adjust,” said Earth Emerson Co-President Lindsay Geller. “We should do whatever makes it easy to recycle.”

Universities recycling rate

Emerson College’s official recycler, JRM Hauling and Recycling Services in Peabody, doesn’t seem to agree with Emerson’s decision of going single stream. “The largest volume increases are not based on going from dual to single,” said Sales Manager Tom Flanagan at JRM. Diversion rates tend to boost “when it’s a new program you have going,” he said. “not based on going from dual to single.” Moving to single stream for a university isn’t just limited to changing bin stickers and sizes.

Like other businesses, for Emerson College, it also means losing revenue from recycling and paying a $50 pickup fee as compared to current $25. However, for a successfully running single-stream program, the equation of profit and loss often comes down to zero,  said Harvard’s Gogan.

“It costs a little more for us because there is more labor on their end and they are concerned that there could be some contamination,” Vlandren said.

Along with going single stream and expanding its outreach program, the institution is also considering juxtaposing all trash and recycling bins to improve its current 24 percent diversion rate.

Vlandren explained that moving to single stream also means higher contamination rates, which may result in penalties from recyclers. “The industry structure for single-stream recycling is such that penalties go hand in hand with single-stream waste,” Vlandren explained. Though such penalties might be a financial burden on any institution, he said, “it only motivates us to come up with smarter initiatives.”

With proper implementation, Emerson might not have so much to worry about such penalties. As for a single-stream program as old as that of Harvard University, Gogan explained, it has only incurred penalties twice, due to natural calamities.




About rahul_raghuvanshi 3 Articles
Rahul Raghuvanshi is a multimedia journalist with a passion for story telling. He currently works as the Web Editor for  WERS 88.9FM and has previously interned with the Boston Herald as a video journalist. He holds a bachelor's degree in electronics and communication engineering. His passion to communicate technology and issues of public interests led him to pursue his master's degree in journalism at Emerson College.