Growing Local Roots

Throw Away or Recycle?

By Jolene Khor


You just had a quick bite at your favorite café on campus. You’re five minutes late to class, but you have a water bottle, dirty napkins, and food wrappers to throw away. You spot the recycling bin in the corner, but the trash can is right next to you. You know what you should do, but can you really afford to be late to class again. To throw or to recycle?


 Nineteen-year-old Valerie Tyran sits by the window of the Plaza Café on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. She texts on her phone as she chews on the tuna sandwich and grapes she bought for lunch. Occasionally, she takes a long gulp of her strawberry yogurt drink. Some days, but not all the time, Valerie said she indulges her sweet tooth. Today, she is, and eats chocolate chip cookies for dessert.


 Tyran, a sophomore majoring in speech pathology at

Western Michigan University (WMU), buys her

lunches on campus once every few days. When

she is finished with her meal, she collects all the

plastic containers and wrappers, hops down off

the stool and heads to the nearby recycling bin.

She drops her empty plastic yogurt bottle into the

bin and she throws the rest of her food packaging

into the silver trash can.


Buying her lunches from a campus café, Tyran is

an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistic.


According EPA statistics, almost 30 percent of all waste generated in the United States in 2009 came from containers and packaging like the ones Valerie buys.  If she does not recycle the packaging that holds her food, she becomes part of the 52.2 percent of Americans who throw food packaging in the trash can.


While the EPA numbers reflect an improvement from previous years, Carolyn Noack, manager of solid waste reduction at WMU, said she thinks there is still much to be done on the Western Michigan University campus.


“Oh you name it, these students will throw it. Everything from paper to bottled cans to pizza boxes, batteries, electronics, light bulbs,” she said. “Anything you can think of -- a student will generate and throw away.”


Noack, who has been heading WMU’s recycling programs since 1990, said she routinely pulls out 20 to 40 percent of items in the trash bins on campus that can be recycled. She said most of them are Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles.


Noack attributes the wrongful disposal of recyclable materials to students’ general ignorance about recycling.

We’re finding out that students don’t really know what can or can’t be recycled, but we’re not sure how to change that because it’s on the website, we do presentations, we do displays in the Bernhard Center,” she said. “The information is there, but is it being accessed properly?  No. Therein lies the problem.”


Joseph Szuszwalak, co-chair of Students for a Sustainable Earth, also agreed that a lack of education is part of the problem. He said that students are concerned about the environment, but they don’t always understand how their behavior affects it.


They don’t understand the full cycle of products and it’s not just Styrofoam but everything that is consumed,” the environmental studies and political science major said of his peers. “When you go to the store and you pick up something on the shelf, you see the price. But when you really think about it, it’s got a whole other price on the environment, on people, and on social issues.”


Noack said that the environment will pay the price for students’ irresponsibility, should they fail to act their age and hold themselves responsible for their actions.


Everybody needs to take responsibility for their waste. Students are adults, and they should act like adults so they are equally responsible,” she said. “If you’re purchasing something, you’re ultimately responsible for its disposal. Take that responsibility and put it where it needs to go. It’s just that simple.”


Nicholas Wikar, co-chair of Students for a Sustainable Earth, agreed that students need to find “a happy balance” in their lifestyle and treatment of the environment.


Our generation needs to have a better understanding of how one person can contribute to the environment.  Every day, we make decisions about the sustainability of the world we inhabit,” the 24-year-old said. “We can party, but we can do it responsibly. This is where we need to work on our threshold.”


It can be as simple as understanding that when you throw something on the ground, it doesn’t just magically disappear, Szuszwalak said. “It sits there for the rest of eternity unless you do something about it,” he said.


Noack agreed that there are some things students can do, starting with making use of the water filters in lecture buildings instead of buying water bottles from vending machines.


It’s the easiest thing to do, and it’s cost effective. Bottled water is unnecessary – we have safe, clean drinking water in America,” she said.


Another simple step students can take to reduce take-out waste is bringing reusable containers with them wherever they go, Noack said, and although WMU has not established such a program yet, it’s not difficult to put it into practice.


Amin Zainal, a supervisor at the Bernhard Café, said he already sees students using reusable containers on a regular basis.


While students are not allowed to use their own containers in the campus dining halls, the aeronautical engineering senior said he “tries not to be too harsh on such regulations especially when what they’re doing benefits the environment.”


Of course it’s important that the containers and Ziploc bags they bring are clean, washed. We don’t want to be responsible for food contamination,” Zainal said.


At the same time, I’m not going to stop students who bring their containers and their own EcoMugs during lunch time. My gesture may be small, but in a campus community, every little bit goes a long way.”


Valerie Tyran admitted that while she doesn’t always go out of her way to do what’s green, she said whenever she grabs a coffee to-go, she “tries to remember to reuse the coffee sleeves next time.  That may not be much but at least I don’t get a side of guilty over my morning fix!”