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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Trash Talk: RecycleMania numbers fail to illustrate whole picture

Robert Alcaraz
Robert Alcaraz/ Arizona Daily Wildcat The new “Greening the Campus” project is picking up speed as students notice the recycle bin on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011. The recycle bin has a side for trash and recyclables.

Numbers never lie. But they may not tell you everything.

During 2009, the UA reportedly recycled more than 1 million pounds of material over 10 weeks, placing fourth among hundreds of universities nationwide in a competition called RecycleMania, according to a UANews article published on April 17, 2009.

While the UA did place fourth, it didn’t actually save “more than 1 million pounds” of recyclables from the landfills. According to official RecycleMania records, it only saved 863,192. Where those extra 150,000 pounds of recycling came from is anybody’s guess.

But here’s the kicker: One year later, the UA’s RecycleMania statistics plummeted, regardless of which number you use. In 2010, the UA ranked 27th and recycled only 446,258 pounds of material. In 2011, the UA brought in 512,822 pounds and ranked 21st. This year, the UA recycled 420,295 pounds and ranked 36th.

“Wow, that’s a lot,” said RecycleMania President Bill Rudy when he learned about the UA’s sustained 50 percent drop. He later added that such dramatic decreases are “not entirely unheard of.”

“Accuracy is important,” Rudy said, “but I would probably say it’s secondary.”

If accuracy comes second, then RecycleMania’s overall goal of encouraging college students and staff to up their recycling comes first. The competition aims to reduce waste at universities by promoting campus recycling programs and motivating schools to keep track of how much they recycle. The UA competes for RecycleMania’s Gorilla Prize, which looks for the university that recycles the most tonnage without taking into account campus population.

In the past, only UA residence halls participated in RecycleMania, but in 2009, Facilities Management and Residence Life came together to get the entire campus involved.

“That’s when we started doing well in the competition,” said Jill Ramirez, sustainability coordinator for Residence Life.

However, in the three years since the UA’s award-winning 2009 success, its recycling levels have remained relatively the same, which raises the question if the UA is achieving RecycleMania’s primary goal.

“There’s lots of reasons why the numbers were a little wonky that first year we competed as a campus,” Ramirez said. “Basically, we came in fourth place, but we were still learning how to report our numbers. That’s kind of the short version.”

It turns out no one can pinpoint exactly why the UA’s RecycleMania 2009 numbers were, as Ramirez said, “wonky.” But there are a few possibilities.

Re-hauling the process

Because 2009 was the first year Residence Life joined forces with Facilities Management, the procedure for reporting the UA’s recycling levels may have been convoluted, Ramirez said.

“You have to make sure that communication is working well, that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” said Christopher Kopach, assistant vice president of Facilities Management.

Both Ramirez and Kopach said that since 2009, the process for collecting, weighing and reporting how much material the UA recycles has become more defined and more accurate.

Throughout the tournament, universities report weekly how many pounds of material they’ve recycled to RecycleMania. In 2009, the UA used the organization’s volume-to-weight conversion factors to estimate how much it recycled, because whoever collected the recycling at the time wasn’t capable of weighing the material, Ramirez said.

Using RecycleMania’s conversion factors, 1 cubic yard of loose “campus waste” weighs 90 pounds and 1 cubic yard of compacted “campus waste” weighs 300 pounds.

Over the past four years, the UA has gone through several waste haulers, and the University Communications Office wasn’t able to find the waste-hauling contract from 2009 by press time. During RecycleMania 2010, the UA’s contract was with the city of Tucson. The city weighed the trash in pounds.

As of last fall, the UA’s Waste Management facility started collecting the trash and recycling, and it too weighs the material, ensuring that the numbers reported to RecycleMania are actual weights, not estimates.

Wasted words

Any inaccurate measurements from the conversion process would’ve been compounded with yet another 2009 oddity: Around 60,000 extra books discarded by the university’s libraries.

The libraries get rid of duplicate or unused material every year, but according to Jim Fromm, leader of the Library Support Services Team, 2009 saw an “intensive effort” to clean out their shelves.

He estimated the University Libraries sent an extra 20,000 volumes to the recycling bins that year. Law Library Director Michael Chiorazzi said the Law Library at the James E. Rogers College of Law added another 40,000.

Books range from 1 to 6 pounds, Fromm said. That means the University Libraries and the Law Library could have contributed anywhere from 60,000 pounds to 360,000 pounds of recycled material to the 2009 campus total.

“I don’t think we accounted for half of (the recycling),” Fromm said. “I’m not a math major, but I can figure it out.”

On a side note, there may be less reading material circulating on campus now than there was four years ago. The Daily Wildcat prints fewer and fewer issues each year, according to Arizona Student Media Director Mark Woodhams. And other publications, like the Tucson Weekly, have cut their circulations as well.

Woodhams added that in the past, students were known to commandeer multiple copies of the Daily Wildcat from the newsstands just so they could add them to the recycling bins during the tournament. At one point, Residence Life quit counting the paper in its totals, Woodhams said.

Throwing out the past

Despite extra material from the libraries, potentially inaccurate measurements and a new partnership to sort out, 2009’s more than 50 percent drop still seems impossible to ignore. But RecycleMania didn’t notice, according to Rudy.

“We do make our best effort to verify numbers, especially with people who are toward the top,” he said.

If RecycleMania finds that a university fabricated numbers, the university will be disqualified from its competitive division and lowered to the “benchmark” division. At this level, schools continue to report to RecycleMania, but can’t compete against others, Rudy said.

Regardless of the tournament, the UA has seen little change in its recycling levels. Student organizations, Residence Life and Facilities Management have acknowledged the stagnant statistics and are making efforts to improve, according to Natalie Lucas, co-director of Students for Sustainability and a junior studying environmental science and philosophy, politics, economics and law.

“With RecycleMania, we want to really expand and go for a campuswide push,” Lucas said.

To make recycling more convenient, Students for Sustainability is working to identify where recycling bins are needed on campus. The goal is to have a recycling bin next to every trashcan by next year so that people don’t have to go out of their way to recycle, Lucas said.

Ramirez said she hopes to use RecycleMania to turn recycling into a habit for students and staff. The idea is that if people get used to doing something for 10 weeks, they will continue doing it in the long term. To publicize the competition, she said, Residence Life and Facilities Management plan to increase advertising through emails, posters and social media.

Facilities Management aims to up the ratio of recycling to waste by 10 percent every year, Kopach said.

“We’re really trying to ramp it up. We’re getting new signage, we’re working with ASUA, the Sustainability Office, Residence Life, Compost Cats,” Kopach said. “It’s really a collaborative effort.”

By the numbers

Since the UA placed fourth in RecycleMania, its performance has decreased by more than half.

2009: 863,192 pounds
2010: 446,258 pounds
2011: 512,822 pounds
2012: 420,295 pounds

Source: RecycleMania

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