Southern Utah University is continuing to prioritize recycling, even amid budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic and controversy surrounding the recycling industry.
In 2019, SUU recycled 23.82 tons of paper, cardboard and plastic used on campus according to Outdoor Pathways, a department at SUU meant to connect students with the outdoors. This was completed through a sustained partnership between Outdoor Pathways and SUU Facilities.
With bins in every building on campus, two SUU student recycling assistants transfer all the recyclable material on campus to a compactor. The compacted material is then transferred to a processing center in St. George and eventually sent to Las Vegas, Nevada.
Recycling is among many projects the university has undertaken to promote sustainability. The school regularly completes energy and sustainability assessments, and has also recently updated the lighting and heating systems to be more efficient.
“I think that SUU is the leader of sustainability in our community and doesn’t say that loud enough, because I know that a lot of things happen that really kind of go unnoticed,” said Briget Eastep, the director of Outdoor Pathways who oversees the recycling program. “I think recycling is a good example of that. It could have been something very easy to discontinue just because of budget cuts and the response to the pandemic, but it is something they have continued to be committed to.”
Due to the pandemic, SUU had to cut its normal yearly budget by more than $3 million, and each of the departments on campus had to make sacrifices. However, the university chose to keep its recycling program, even as the national market for recycled material is shrinking.
Cedar City discontinued its citywide recycling program at the beginning of 2020, citing increased costs and lack of resources. This has been a trend across the United States for a few years ever since China stopped accepting the United States’ recycled material in 2018.
“There was no market for recycling being done by cities, and it kind of hit the United States pretty hard,” Eastep said.
Along with a dwindling market, there is also a growing concern about the efficacy of the recycling industry in general.
According to an article by National Geographic, over 90% of what people throw into recycling bins doesn’t actually end up being recycled. Instead, it ends up buried in landfills, or polluting the environment and ocean.
Paul Rhodes, a senior at SUU and the Sustainability Club president, shared that this is because there is a lack of a profitable market for recycled goods within the United States, and also because people aren’t recycling material correctly. According to Rhodes, lots of recycled material is rejected because of contamination.
“People [are] putting the wrong stuff into the bins. If you throw a banana peel in there, it could ruin the entire compactor once there’s a certain percentage of contamination in there. People have to learn how to recycle correctly,” he said.
Rhodes also shared that even if recycling was happening correctly, it would only play a small part in combating environmental issues such as climate change, pollution and a lack of clean water. Following the popular phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” he asserted that recycling should come last.
“Way higher to prioritize would be reducing and reusing as best as possible. So reduce as much as you can your own consumption, and your plastic waste in particular. If you have to use plastic, try and reuse it as much as possible. And then at the end is finally recycle,” Rhodes said.
Even with these roadblocks for recycling, SUU continues to prioritize the program, spending nearly $3000 in 2019 on it, according to Eastep. To maintain the program, the school also had to renegotiate their contracts with the transfer stations that transport the recycled material.
In August 2019, Rocky Mountain Transfer Station, the station in St. George that SUU was previously partnered with, informed the school that they could no longer accept their recycled materials. SUU then began a new partnership with Republic Services later that year who since then has transferred the school’s recycled material to Las Vegas.
The only other options in Cedar City for recycling are private companies, such as the national curbside service Recyclops.
According to the SUU recycling program’s last update, the goal of their program is “to keep people who are in the habit of recycling, to continue to recycle.”
Rhodes shared that while he thinks SUU is doing the best they can and is pleased with their recycling program, he worries the recycling industry in general isn’t addressing the root of environmental issues.
“[Recycling] doesn’t address the overconsumption and the pollution, so that doesn’t help fix the problems that caused it. So it’s almost like a cop out. It’s a way of justifying your consumption rather than fixing the source of the issue,” Rhodes said.
Story by: Lainey Cartwright
Photo by: Sigmund on unsplash.com