Plastic Film and Bags Collected Campus-wide

Background/Introduction

The recycling program at Stanford University has been at the forefront of collegiate recycling since it began over 35 years ago as a grassroots student recycling project. In the interim, the student-run venture became a campus-wide program run by Peninsula Sanitary Service, Inc. (PSSI). Thanks in part to its commitment to and success in recycling, Newsweek magazine awarded Stanford second place in its 2011 “Greenest School Rankings.” Additionally, in 2009, the university diverted 1.24 million pounds of recyclables and won the Gorilla Prize (awarded to the campus that recycles the greatest gross tonnage of recyclables) in that year’s Recyclemania™ collegiate recycling competition.

The Beginning of Plastic Film Recycling

PSSI and Stanford have a unique partnership in which PSSI has space on campus for its yard and drop off location, but Stanford is its only customer. The plastic film recycling program started in early 2002 when several factors came together: there was a market for plastic film, an interested buyer for this plastic, and a university – Stanford –looking for options to further decrease its waste stream.

The program started with bins and cardboard boxes set up in the areas around campus where the most volume of flexible plastic film was generated—Medical center, chemistry and biology storerooms, and the book stores. In its first decade, the program has grown to include more than 3,000 bins around campus and in 600 buildings, curbside service for 700 single family homes (located on campus and owned by the University) and a cart available for film collection at the on-campus drop-off site, located at the PSSI yard.

Importance of Keeping Film Plastic Dry in Paper Bins

PSSI runs a dual stream collection at Stanford—plastic bottles, metal, and glass are collected together and plastic bags and wrap are collected with paper. Accepting bags of plastic wrap and bags in the mixed paper side of the bins keeps the plastic clean and dry, which is essential for recyclability. The bins are located in common areas in dormitories, office and academic buildings and in other locations that produce bags and film, like stores and storerooms.

PSSI drivers empty the bins and collect curbside recyclables on weekly routes in split body trucks. The drivers then return to the yard to dump their loads. Most of the bags of lightweight plastic film and bags float to the top of the piles of paper products when the trucks are emptied. Stanford’s local recycling service provider doesn’t take issue with the small amount of plastic wrap and bags that is left co-mingled with the paper after sorting. The clean and dry plastic is collected, stored in a 15-yard container until the container is full and then baled. In 2012, Stanford collected and baled just over 8,000 pounds of plastic bags and wraps in 500 pound bales.

Program Recommendations and Moving Forward

Over the last 35 years, Stanford has taken a grassroots student recycling movement and turned it into a national leader in collegiate recycling. From this program comes the following guidance:

  • Invest in good signage with graphics to show what you’re trying to collect.
  • Ongoing education is vital to showcase changes and additions to recyclable items.
  • Keeping plastic bags and wraps clean and dry is essential for recycling these items.
  • Work with suppliers to focus on easily recyclable packaging in your area —e.g., air pockets for packing items.
  • Put bins in central locations to maximize collection.

Moving forward, PSSI will work to provide recycling information to incoming students before their arrival on campus. Additionally, PSSI is exploring the use of other on-campus resources to increase diversion rates of flexible plastics and other recyclables—like using move-in advisers to promote and encourage recycling of plastic packaging during move-in weekends.