For years, Georgetown University was among the leading universities for recycling in the nation. Recently, however, recycling at Georgetown has been marred by rumors and clouded by widespread confusion over the state of recycling; it has, in effect, fallen off track because of unorganized policy. A sustained effort on the part of both students and administrators is needed to get back to our old standing.

You may have heard the rumors that Georgetown doesn’t recycle properly —  or, even worse,  that we don’t recycle at all. Students of the Georgetown Renewable Energy and Environmental Network were originally convinced by these rumors and prepared to protest the administration.

However, after investigating Georgetown’s recycling history and learning the truth that Georgetown never actually stopped recycling, we decided that divisiveness was not the answer. We now feel obligated to set the record straight to instill the transparency that we, as students, deserve.

In 1989, the Office of Planning and Facilities Management instated a recycling manager to oversee and coordinate all aspects of the university’s recycling program. As a result, Georgetown made serious progress in its waste management, including rising percentages of total waste recycled. By 2011, Georgetown was one of the nation’s most highly rated universities in terms of recycling. The Office of Sustainability at the time attributed Georgetown’s success to a combined student and administration effort.

Georgetown filled the position of recycling manager a number of times, but the position was left vacant in 2012. Georgetown still has not filled that position, even though local peer institutions still have recycling managers to this day. Without anyone handling recycling in an official capacity, crucial duties started falling through the cracks. Tasks like researching rates offered by different recycling plants, monitoring material recovery facilities, optimizing schedules and tracking data were left unattended.

At this time, the university decided to transition to a new single stream system, meaning all recyclables belong in the same bin, but signage was not appropriately administered, inadequately trained facilities custodians often confused which bags to put in which trucks, and we, the students, didn’t bother taking the time to understand and sort recyclables from trash properly.

As a result of this lack of readjustment, Georgetown was failing to recycle “commingled” materials, which refers to aluminum, glass and plastic. But, to dispel all rumors, there was never a point in time that Georgetown did not recycle at all. The university has always recycled waste like construction materials, cardboard, steel, electronics, yard waste and dining compost, which are handled in separate processes.

Currently, recycling at Georgetown falls victim to a culture of complacency. Students won’t spend time sorting recyclables from trash if they believe that Georgetown doesn’t recycle. Facilities struggles to improve the situation because of insufficient custodial training and lack of funding to tackle the recycling issue head-on.

However, in collaboration with the Office of Sustainability and facilities management, we can improve the system.

For a permanent solution to this problem, Georgetown must reinstate the position of a recycling manager. Without this position, no one is officially designated to revamp and maintain the recycling program.

Students of GREEN and the Office of Sustainability have already been working on procuring better bins and supplementing them with image-based labels in order to educate students and faculty on proper recycling practices.

Members of the Georgetown community must stay informed and sort their items properly. Based on GREEN’s preliminary surveys of the Georgetown waste stream, a significant amount of all materials is improperly sorted.

Among the most common contaminants are plastic straws, forks, spoons, knives, wrappers and bags, all of which are not recyclable. Containers with food or liquids must be emptied out before they can be recycled. If a load of recyclables is too contaminated, it will be rejected by the local recycling facilities and disposed of as trash — so when in doubt, throw it out! Beyond recycling, we all need to consider ways that we can reduce disposable items in our daily lives, including plastic shopping bags, straws and drink lids.

If everyone plays their part, we will be able to overcome this culture of complacency. Let’s work together and lead Georgetown to become what it once was: an all-around leader in sustainability.

Caroline Flibbert is a sophomore in the College. Nareg Kuyumjian is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Ava Rosato is a junior in the College. All three are leaders of the GREEN Recycling Team. Flibbert is also an intern in the Office of Sustainability.

Hunter Congdon (SFS ’19) and Olivia Torbert (SFS ’20) contributed research.

The authors encourage you to learn more about recycling at https://dpw.dc.gov/service/residential-recycling-collection.

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