Lehigh’s Sustainability Plan for 2020 aims to improve sustainable operations in the areas of air and climate, buildings, dining services, energy, grounds, purchasing, transportation, water, and waste. However, waste management has proven to be an issue on campus.
Lehigh’s waste goal states the university plans to “create and implement a waste management plan to minimize waste generated on campus by 10 percent over the 2010 baseline, increase recyclables by 10 percent over the 2012 baseline and divert all food waste from trash stream.”
According to the Office of Sustainability’s website, the office makes it easier for the university and community to recycle by initiating a single-stream recycling system on campus, which involves gathering recyclables without individually sorting them.
On March 20, Residential Services informed the Lehigh community of a campus-wide recycling problem. Gary Falasca, the director of Facility Services, wrote in an email that Lehigh’s recycling facility, Greenstar Recycling in Northampton, Pennsylvania, is rejecting all materials.
“Lehigh was advised by its hauling contractor (SWS) that several loads were rejected for food contamination during the week of March 5,” Falasca wrote in an email. “This has persisted in subsequent weeks. Prior to this date, high levels of contamination had not been a problem.”
The Office of Sustainability website states the university recycled 614.98 tons in 2017, 856.06 tons in 2016, and 957.70 tons in 2015.
According to the March 20 residential services email, this rejected waste is doubling the cost of disposing of waste.
“SWS is actively looking for another facility to accept (recyclables) from Lehigh,” Falasca wrote.
Jane Le, ’20, the Eco-Rep for Richards House said that in the past, an estimated 8 to 10 percent food contamination resulted in entire bags being tossed. Christopher Miller, ’21, the Taylor House Eco-Rep, said now the number is down to 0.5 percent.
Le said recently, 8 to 9 tons of recyclables were sent back, which is expensive for Lehigh and harmful to the environment. She said being mindful of food waste and cleaning out containers like yogurt cups is especially crucial as Lehigh is trying to comply with these new standards.
“Due to the amount (of food waste) present in the compactors, likely sources are high food use areas such as Greek house kitchens, the University Center and Rathbone,” Falasca wrote. “Staff is monitoring containers from these locations with the hope of reducing contamination.”
Lehigh’s Eco-Reps are researching ways to reverse the recycling issue and raise awareness about the proper way to recycle.
“(We promote) sustainability and environmentally friendly habits across campus,” Le said, “things like paying attention to what you’re throwing away, and how you’re throwing it away.”
Miller said people aren’t conscious about what they’re doing with their waste and think everything can go into a recycling bin, while Le said she doesn’t think students care enough because they don’t understand where the trash is going.
Kathy Doan, ’21, said she doesn’t think students recycle frequently and aren’t aware of all preventive measures being taken on campus. She said she has noticed students throwing unacceptable waste into Lehigh’s recycling bins.
Because of the new regulations, Lehigh students and staff are urged to strongly consider waste disposal.
“At this point, it is imperative that all members of the Lehigh community be mindful of what is put into recycling containers on campus,” Falasca wrote in an email. “More information can be found in the recycling section of the (Office of Sustainability’s) website.”
But the university’s recycling problem is still troubling for students.
“It is concerning because a lot of stuff that was recyclable got contaminated and it wound up getting processed as waste,” Miller said. “I feel like I knew it was an issue and I have seen people throw food in recycling bins and other things that would count as waste.”