Recycling at Penn State Means “Being Everywhere, All the Time”

Background/Introduction

The Pennsylvania State University (PSU) has nearly 45,000 students, 20,000 employees, and countless visitors who generate over 15,000 tons of waste every year at its main University Park campus in State College. With the nearest landfill being 100 miles away, PSU depends on the 3Rs—Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle—to save money on both fuel costs and tipping fees.

Cooperative Spirit Drives Recycling

The Office of Physical Plant oversees the recycling and waste management on the PSU campus. Its employees are dedicated to a cooperative spirit described as “organized entropy- being everywhere all the time” to divert waste from the landfill. The university uses 5,000 on-campus recycling bins to send as much waste as possible to the local Centre County Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), located 7 miles from campus, for recycling and reprocessing. The savings in fuel costs alone are significant when one considers the difference between a 14-mile and a 200-mile round trip for a waste truck.

The Plastic Film Recycling Program

The Office of Recycling and Waste Management (ORWM) is always looking for new opportunities to recycle waste materials. In 2007, a local alumna, who works for a company that uses recycled plastic film and bags to make composite decking, collaborated with the ORWM to start an on-campus flexible plastic film recycling program. The plastic film project has grown in the interceding years to include collection from the entire PSU campus.

The PSU campus houses 7 dining halls, 2 hotels, several warehouses and storerooms, a large general store and over 900 other buildings and residence halls. Nearly all of these locales have recycling centers in central locations where occupants can bring their bags of plastic bags and stretch film. The bags of flexible plastic are collected in bins with plastic bottles. Throughout the week, the internal recyclables are moved by custodial staff to outside “staging areas,” where they are collected by Physical Plant employees on designated routes.

At the Physical Plant location, the plastic bags and stretch film are separated from bottles and kept in a covered 30-yard container, which is taken to the Centre County MRF when full. Penn State does not bale its flexible plastic because the MRF is willing to take the loose material as it is received. Just two years into the program, the university diverted 32,000 pounds of flexible plastic from the landfill in 2009. In 2012, PSU collects enough flexible film to send the full 30-yard container to the MRF twice every week.

Future Program Goals

As of 2010, PSU recycled 59% of its waste (roughly 8,900 tons of material) with its entire campus-wide recycling program. To further improve these numbers, student groups are doing waste audits and working on programs for diverting more waste. Education and awareness campaigns target those areas that are trailing or less robust. PSU has set an aggressive recycling goal for itself as highlighted by its Recycling and Waste Management Office: “Penn State has the means and locations to recycle and compost 88% of its waste.” Recycling more flexible film is a significant part of this goal.

For more information about Penn State’s recycling efforts, go to sustainability.psu.edu.