College Reinstates Recycling, Composting in Dorms


Erin Koo

Recycling bins will be used for mixed recycling in Spring 2023.

The Office of Environmental Sustainability is working to reintroduce a commingled recycling program for most buildings on campus. Slated for an official rollout at the end of February, the program will also introduce specific locations for glass waste and personal hygiene products, which must be kept separate from general recycling.

The planned rollout of the recycling program follows the addition of composting locations in Dascomb and Barrows Halls, which were introduced this past Wednesday. For students living off campus or in Village Housing, OES also plans to reintroduce a recycling partnership between Village Housing and the City of Oberlin.

Recycling in the City of Oberlin was initially paused in March of 2020 due to public health measures, and when it was reintroduced in November of that year, it was on an optin basis. The College did not opt in, and therefore only students living off-campus and in Village Housing could opt into the program.

Heather Adelman, director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability, explained in anemail to the Review that these new initiatives follow a broader plan set by the College, which calls for a significant reduction in waste by 2050.

“The Oberlin College Environmental Policy Implementation Plan, approved by the General Faculty in 2015, discusses a goal of zero waste by 2050,” Adelman wrote. “Zero waste is defined [in this plan] as ‘diverting at least 90 [percent] of materials from the landfill through reusing, recycling, and composting.’”

Contamination of recycled waste with non-recyclable material remains a concern for Adelman, who emphasized that students should remain cautious about when to use recycling.

“We are really focusing on quality over quantity,” Adelman wrote. “Contamination is a big deal, and if we have too much of it, we risk losing service and/ or paying large contamination fees. I like to say, ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’”

Specific indicators, including the chasing arrow symbol, do not necessarily mean that the item can be recycled. “Only the following items will be recyclable in Oberlin’s relaunched recycling program: plastics #1 and #2 (and only those with necks and/or handles, no clamshells), mixed paper, cardboard, and mixed food metal and aluminum cans.”

During the College’s previous time with recycling, Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies Cindy Frantz described many people as engaging in what she called “aspirational recycling,” or disposing of waste in recycling that would normally go to trash. This trend led to the College frequently having to pay costly contamination fees.

“The plant would say, ‘This is way too contaminated,’ and charge us a fee, and the waste ended up going to the landfill,” Frantz said. “The point of contamination is a real problem; it has ecological, social, and personal costs. Contaminated waste can gum up machines at the recycling plant.”

According to double-degree second-year Sophie Griffith-Oh, who works as an intern with the Office of Environmental Sustainability, the reintroduction of recycling and expansion of composting will present challenges for students, who have grown accustomed to seeing trash and recycling bins as identical. During the more than two years with no on-campus recycling, Oberlin converted blue recycling bins into additional trash bins.

“It’s going to be hard bringing it back because so many people have gotten used to just throwing their trash in the recycling bins,” Griffith-Oh said. “Each person will have to cultivate a habit.”

For Conservatory third-year Ethan Pound, however, the College’s return to recycling has left mixed emotions.

“As somebody who doesn’t know enough, and coming from a system where we were taught the three R’s — everything about the environment feels hopeless,” Pound said. “I have less motivation for recycling specifically because, as a kid, recycling was pushed as ‘this will save the environment.’ I keep on seeing headlines about how we’re f**ked and things are gonna go to s**t in seven years. It’s hard not to feel cynical about it all.”

However, Frantz reiterated that the kinds of decisions one makes on a personal level can have a broader influence.

“I say this as a psychologist: One of the things that gives me hope is that human beings have an almost unlimited capacity to change incredibly rapidly, and there are all kinds of things that people said were completely impossible that have happened,” Frantz said.