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WVU aims to reuse, recycle

West Virginia University has continued to promote reducing, reusing and recycling on its  campuses.

WVU Sustainability Director Traci Knabenshue, provided an overview of how recycling and waste disposal is carried out at the university.

WVU offers single-stream recycling on its campuses, meaning all recycling is compiled in one bin while landfill waste goes into a separate bin.

Knabenshue said recycling and landfill bins are typically placed side-by-side on campus so  both types of bins are easily accessible to students.

Recycling bins on WVU campuses can be found in hallways, building entrances, common spaces and at individual desks in offices. Knabenshue said WVU recycling is carried out through self-service in offices, so employees are responsible for taking recycling and trash from their desks to central recycling and landfill bins.

In the dormitories, students are provided with landfill and recycling bins in their rooms. As with employees, students are responsible for emptying those bins into larger bins, which may be located in the lobby or outside  their dorms.

Custodians then empty recycling and landfill waste into outdoor dumpsters, and WVU has in-house trucks and crews that move landfill waste and recycling separately to the Mountaineer Transfer Station.

Beyond the placement of recycling bins, Knabenshue said WVU has information stations to present information on recycling placed in residence halls and across campus, provides recycling guides on recycling bins, and sporadically runs targeted campaigns, such as a virtual one that was held at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester, to educate students on recycling.

Knabenshue said WVU intends to once again participate in The Campus Race to Zero Waste, a national recycling competition between universities. Knabenshue said this year’s event will be conducted differently than last year’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

WVU is also reevaluating its food service locations  to reduce waste created by those facilities.

“We have reduced most of the Styrofoam that used to be used on campus, and most of that came from retail dining establishments. A lot of that Styrofoam is gone, and we’re working toward being Styrofoam-free,” Knabenshue said.

Knabenshue said the retail dining establishments are transitioning from Styrofoam products to plastic ones, which are recyclable only if they are free from contamination.

“If there’s a bunch of food residue or liquid residue in or on that plastic, in can contaminate the rest of the recycling in our recycling bins,” Knabenshue said.

Knabenshue said this is an area in which education is particularly important, but also challenging.

“You look at something like a food container that’s plastic and say, ‘Oh great, it’s plastic, I can recycle it.’ But there’s a specific way that it needs to be recycled so that it doesn’t contaminate the other recycling in our bins,” Knabenshue said.

Knabenshue said WVU is also considering  types of plastic utensils  actually needed on campus. Plastic straws are an example of a plastic product that is  offered but isn’t  necessary.

With more students living on campus and getting takeout food during COVID-19, WVU has seen an increase in the use of plastic clamshell containers. Knabenshue said WVU is  piloting a reusable to-go box program, which is being tested in WVU’s Towers residence halls.

You are what you eat

Rachael Hood, a master’s student in the WVU geography department and a WVU campus organizer for the Post-Landfill Action Network, said she works with WVU to find ways for the institution to reduce its plastic usage.

 “[We’re] sort of reimagining how we view waste disposability at large,” Hood said.

She said microplastics, or very small pieces of plastic that have been more recently popularized, are a “really alarming issue.”

 You might be eating them and not  know it.

“Human beings, on average, consume a credit card worth of microplastics [each week],” Hood said.

Hood said the majority of this microplastic consumption is a result of leeching from plastics, such as Tupperware containers when microwaved, and microplastics found in soil or water that can contaminate foods.

Hood said plastic can increase the toxicity of environments for wildlife and pose a significant risk to wildlife when consumed.  It also affects soil health and air quality.

Prevalence of plastic

According to Hood, plastic is one of the most common pollutants be-cause it is integrated into a vast variety of products, many of which might not be obvious.

“T-shirts have plastic polymers in them and that links to microplastics. When you wash a T-shirt, microplastics will come off of your T-shirt, go down with your laundry water, and get into the water stream. Plastic is everywhere, even when we don’t recognize it, so I would say the vast majority of waste is going to have plastic in it,” Hood said.

The prevalence of plastic, said Hood, makes it a major concern for her and others who are investing time and resources into preserving our health and our environment.

PLAN is a nonprofit organization that works to support students at universities across the country who are striving to reduce waste production on their campuses. Hood works under PLAN’s plastics and petrochemicals program and organized a plastic-free action camp in mid-2020.

She said PLAN works to create a circular economy, meaning the focus is not on single-use and linear waste systems, but on promoting reducing and reusing to decrease waste production in the first place, and recycling what waste is produced.

Additionally, Hood is  starting a zero-waste task force on WVU campuses, the goal of which is to develop short-term and long-term goals around how to address plastics on campus, and that has generated conversation among various categories of WVU staff members.

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