Columnist advises on how to improve recycling at SDSU


What do you get when you put SDSU’s Sustainability Specialist, the campus Energy Conservation Engineer and a go-getter student in the midst of 35 bags of trash and recycling?  

You may remember seeing this Tyvek-clad trio last month on the west side of The Union. 

Although the scene was a little “trashy,” there was a method to the madness. We were conducting SDSU’s first large-scale waste audit, a dumpster-diving event that helps the university better understand how well people recycle on campus.   

The process was fairly simple. We gathered bags of trash and recycling from across campus and weighed the bags. We then calculated our current recycling rate [weight of recycling/(weight of trash + weight of recycling)], which was around 15 percent.  

Next, we opened the recycling bags and pulled out all the trash. We calculated the contamination rate or how much trash was in the recycling bins. The campus contamination rate was around 40 percent, meaning 40 percent of what was in the recycling bins was actually trash. While some may wonder why this is an issue, trash mixed with recycling causes the recycling to go to the landfill instead of to the recycling center. 

Finally, the trash bags were opened and all recyclables were added to the recycling pile. The amount of both trash and recycling was weighed to give the potential recycling rate for campus. If all recyclable items were placed in the recycling bins and all trash items were placed in the trash bins, SDSU’s recycling rate could be nearly 40 percent. In offices and hallways, the recycling rate could reach 50 percent.

SDSU is doing well with recycling, but improvements can be made on decreasing the contamination rate and increasing the amount that is recycled. Think of how much SDSU could keep out of the landfill if we more than doubled our recycling rate. How can we do that?  The great news is that this should be easy to do by taking three simple steps. 

1. Learn what can be recycled. 

In general, four broad categories can be recycled on our campus —  glass bottles & jars, paper, cans and plastic. Be sure to empty all recyclables of standing liquid and chunks of food. While digging through the recycling, we found many wrappers and paper pop cups which are not recyclable. On the other hand, some common items that were found in the trash bins that can actually be recycled were: paper bags, coffee sleeves, plastic cups from Einstein’s/Java City/Starbucks, plastic bottles, cans and paper. More details can be found at

2. Know where recycling bins are located and utilize them. 

In academic buildings, blue lidded recycling bins are found in hallways and near vending machines. If you have a recyclable item in your office, please take it out to the nearest blue bin or designate an old cardboard box as your personal recycling bin. When picking up recycling outside, it’s easy to carry the item to your destination where you can recycle it properly. The Union has blue and green lidded recycling bins upstairs and in the Market area. Finally, in the new residential halls recycling stations are located on each floor with signs above the bins on what can be recycled. For all halls, green dumpsters are located outside. Use an old cardboard box in your room to collect recycling then empty the bin when you take out your trash!

3. Be a green hero. 

Every little bit helps. Know that every item you recycle correctly helps campus increase its recycling rate. Your dedicated efforts will also encourage others to take action furthering the positive impact.   

I’m excited to work on recycling efforts for campus and look forward to increasing our campus’ recycling rate with my fellow Jackrabbits.


Jennifer McLaughlin is the Sustainability Specialist at SDSU and can be reached at [email protected]