Focus on Oberlin’s Lack of Recycling Detracts from Larger Issues

With many sustainability projects on campus, and a committed goal of carbon neutrality by 2025, Oberlin College is known for being a green school. Oberlin has been recognized nationally for its environmental efforts in the past decade. In 2019, the Sierra Club’s Sierra magazine ranked Oberlin at 35 out of 282 undergraduate colleges and universities on its list of America’s greenest schools. The Oberlin Board of Trustees adopted an environmental policy in 2004 that “covers all aspects of campus management including buildings, food, energy, transportation, purchasing, and recycling.” By far the biggest environmental project the College has currently taken on is the Sustainable Infrastructure Program, which is expected to bring the College to 90 percent carbon neutrality. 

In light of all of this, it’s interesting to note that a recent debate has risen around recycling on campus. Students have expressed their displeasure and confusion as to why our green campus has not been recycling for the past few years. Many have felt it is hypocritical to call ourselves a sustainable and green school when we aren’t even recycling. However, much of this criticism, if not misplaced, at least misses the bigger picture.

While there has yet to be a simple answer for the students, it turns out there is a host of reasons behind the College’s lack of recycling. China’s “National Sword” policy went into effect in January of 2018, severely impacting the global recycling recovery marketplace. The policy set strict quality standards for certain recyclable materials, and mixed paper and post-consumer plastics were banned entirely. The impact of this has trickled down to Oberlin. In April 2019, the service the city of Oberlin used, Republic Services, increased recycling processing charges. In July, it increased prices and implemented a contamination charge for every load that contained more than 15 percent non-recyclable items. The recycling processing fee was again increased in January 2020. At the height of the pandemic, the City of Oberlin suspended its recycling services to protect its employees’ social distancing. The City later reset its recycling program to an opt-in service which was not available for commercial customers at the time. Over the last few years, it has been hard to get recycling up and running again. 

In 2021, the College hired Reduction in Motion to evaluate its previous recycling system — which was plagued with contamination issues — as well as conduct a waste audit and make recommendations for a re-envisioned recycling program. Heather Adelman, the Sustainability Manager of Oberlin College’s Office of Environmental Sustainability, has been working on finding another recycling hauler for the College, creating a redesigned system that will dramatically reduce contamination, including identifying new bins and lids with restrictive openings, a new branding campaign, and new signage. There have been many promising moves, and Adelman is hopeful that recycling will be back on campus by early next year. 

So, if recycling is coming back to campus, and there are reasons why it has taken a while, why are we still talking about this back and forth? It’s not only because recycling on campus should be occurring and people don’t know that it’s coming back soon. We also want to talk about this small debate around recycling on campus because it provides us a window into a problem in our wider culture.

The dominant topics of environmental debates, from dinner tables, to work gatherings, to our conversations on campus, revolve around personal changes we can make. Are you recycling enough? Are you composting? Are you wasting water? Do you turn your lights off? Notice how easily we can get a discussion going about recyclables. As a culture, we love to get involved in heated debates over personal environmental change issues, but we never seem to get beyond that as a country.

These personal changes alone make very little difference when compared to the systematic, cultural, and corporate changes we need. At last year’s 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres spoke about the urgency of addressing climate change.

“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread,” Guterres said. “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode — or our chance of reaching net-zero will itself be zero.” 

The discussions at the conference were about big issues such as pushing wealthy countries to invest in more climate change actions, ensuring countries are honoring climate finance commitments, strengthening national climate targets, and requiring decision makers to show that they are serious about their COP26 commitments. Right now, we need to be in emergency mode. We might not be able to get to the same solutions these conferences aim to reach, but we can have the same discussions and get to a point of pushing for more drastic, necessary change.  

We should be having these higher-level conversations, but we aren’t, because we’ve let ourselves become enamored with the less complex and less scary discussions. It’s almost as if we like having these smaller discussions because then we don’t have to tease out the more complex issues. But our culture needs to be brave, because the big stuff is the only thing that will save us. Once we get past our own personal actions, here’s how we can go further: by joining a large movement. The use of collective action could possibly help take us a step further and put pressure on our political leaders. The website Count Us In helps explain personal actions that one can take for the environment, but also helps open the discussion further by pointing people toward challenging their leaders to act more boldly on climate change. The U.N.’s Act Now campaign helps get people involved in speaking up about climate change. The first major step is talking with one another and centering our discussions around impactful change. 

So by all means let’s push each other to put recycling bins in all our buildings, compost bins in all of our kitchens, and electric cars in all of our garages. But let’s also notice how seductive that part of the discussion is. Let’s notice that that personal work tempts us to ignore the bigger stuff. It’s ironic, but this temptation might be what’s holding us back from making the greatest impact for the health of our climate.