Smart sorting: University announces new recycling guidelines

Last spring, a staggering 50 percent of Washington University in St. Louis’ recycling loads were rejected by waste haulers because of food contamination. The primary culprit: the used to-go box.

“Food — even residual grease from a slice of pizza or a trace of salsa from a taco salad — contaminates to-go boxes,” said Cassandra Hage, sustainability manager. “And when enough contaminated boxes get mixed in with a load of recycling, the entire load gets rejected. That means hundreds of pounds of glass, cardboard and other materials that should be recycled get dumped in the landfill. It’s a big setback for one of our hallmark sustainability efforts.”

In the past, waste haulers would accept contaminated loads because the market for recyclable materials was so strong. But as demand slumped, haulers became more selective, Hage explained. To adjust, the Office of Sustainability is launching a new education campaign to help clarify which materials go where.

One simple rule: Recycling bins should be filled with clean, dry waste. The means no products containing food, liquid or ice. Paper-based soda cups, coffee cups or plastic utensils also cannot be recycled.

Some products can be composted, such as the aforementioned to-go box, but not every dining location offers composting — at least, not yet.

Community members can develop new habits during “Recyclemania,” a nationwide challenge where hundreds of universities vie to recycle the largest percent of school waste. Recyclemania kicks off Feb. 5 and runs for eight weeks.

Recycle smart

Dining waste that can be recycled:

Plastic milk bottles

Plastic juice bottles

Coffee cup sleeves

Hard plastic containers

Dining waste that cannot be recycled:

Soda cups

Coffee cups

Plastic utensils

Soup cups

Used to-go boxes (though they can be composted)

Phil Valko, assistant vice chancellor for sustainability, acknowledged the simple act of tossing one’s trash can be fraught with confusion and hoped new signage would make the process easier. The Office of Sustainability also has dispatched Recycling Geniuses to help diners sort their waste. The Office of Sustainability’s recycling guidelines provides helpful tips for users as well. The link provides downloadable signs that can be posted in offices and other areas. 

“The good news is our community has historically demonstrated a real commitment to recycling,” Valko said. “We at the Office of Sustainability know that, with the continued support of our faculty, staff and students, the university will reach its goal of recycling 55 percent of waste by 2020.”

In addition, the university is promoting new ways for diners to avoid disposable materials all together. Most locations offer china and silverware. Other options are:

  • Eco To-Go box. The reusable boxes are free and easy to use. Just ask for your meal in an Eco To-Go box and return it to any location just as you would return a plate. 
  • Bring-your-own-mug discount. Brewed coffee poured into a reusable mug only costs $1.19, almost half price.
  • Bottomless mug. Purchase a bottomless ceramic or travel mug for $95 and fill it with brewed coffee for free at any Washington University Dining location for a year.


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