By Jessica Rybak
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In order to learn the true meaning of this phrase, I put in some time at Stony Brook’s Recycling and Resource Management headquarters.
At first glance, the department was a humble building with a pale green exterior, exactly what I’d expected to see in an organization so dedicated to spreading a positive message. Signs depicting recycling instructions, motivation and explanations littered the walls. “Come on everybody, let’s get green, before Mother Nature gets real mean,” was written in green ink on a dry erase board in the hallway.
As an avid fan of saving the environment, I made light of manager Mike Youdelman’s warning that “sorting” would be unpleasant and tiresome. “Sorting,” as it has been nicknamed by long-time employees, is the process of deciphering which category paper fits into while it rolls by on a conveyor belt, then tossing it into a giant bin with papers of the like. This includes paper that’s been disposed by the entire university. Tons of paper, newspaper, magazines, textbooks, essays, loose-leaf paper, cardboard boxes and so much more shuffled by in endless circulation all day. Although the department handles both the actual practice of recycling and reaching out to students on the topic, I began with the former, which provides a more hands-on approach to making a difference. Youdelman told me that he would rather I began by sorting recyclables because it would show me the reality of how important it is for students to know how to recycle. And his intentions were well met. While sorting through bins designated for paper recyclables, I frequently found evidence that convinced me that students carelessly toss their trash wherever the nearest receptacle lies. To be honest, I can understand that it’s difficult to envision where your garbage will end up. So it doesn’t faze you when you drop it off, but take it from someone who has had to handle your trash: it sucks. After you drop your waste off, there’s someone waiting to pick it up and hopefully use it as one small step towards a better world. I’ve become one of those people, and I can vouch for the frustration that it causes when a batch of paper is sprinkled with crumbs from a granola bar or used tissues.
(In case anyone had doubts, used tissues are not recyclable paper.) Russ Cannova, Recycling Supervisor, explained a similar problem that is found within the school pertaining to bottles found in residence halls’ recycling bins. “Some of them have a lot of garbage inside of them, so our guys have to clean it all and take the trash out,” says Cannova.
Although sifting through recycling to ensure its cleanliness didn’t seem like a time consuming operation or even a necessary one when I began working, I now understand the gravity of the public doing whatever it can to make the process run more smoothly. This one department handles collecting and recycling paper, bottles, cans, ink jets, toner, wood, carpeting, metal and even ceiling tiles. Combine that with a staff of approximately 20 people and the threat of “contamination,” the proper term for when unrecyclables mix with the good stuff, and you’ve got a load of responsibility on your hands.
“We’ve come a long way in the last few years,” says Cannova, adding “To me, it’s not as bad of a problem now as it used to be, but it is still there.” According to Cannova, Stony Brook’s recycling program began in the 1980’s by “two students and one little truck,” and the program merely “grew from there.” Statistics of this department show that in the last three years alone the amount of recycled tonnage has jumped from approximately 2,000 tons in 2005 to almost 40,000 tons in 2007. Cannova attributes this improvement to Youdelman. “I give Mike a lot of credit. He put it all together to make it easier for people to recycle, and if it’s easy for people it’ll become a habit. It’s an easy habit to save the planet!”
Look out for tables where the Recycling and Resource Management squad will be spreading the message at the SAC and the Union on November 15, which is America Recycles Day.
I can truly say that I’ll never look at a piece of paper or an empty bottle with the same sentiment after this experience. After seeing the extensive process that it takes to recycle, it put the larger part of the public’s inability to go the extra mile in perspective. After you’ve bid adieu to your empty water bottle or crumpled your receipt from a local SINC Site, you have the choice between whether or not you want to breathe new life into your old recyclable.