Campus Programs with Big Impacts

Green is the New Carolina Blue

The favorite color of most people at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) is Carolina Blue. However, green takes a close second as many students, faculty and staff keep environmental issues close to their hearts. In keeping with its goal for greater sustainability, UNC seeks innovative solutions to minimize its garbage footprint within the community. And many organizations are taking notice of UNC’s “green” initiatives. The Sustainable Endowments Institute, in its 2010 College Sustainability Report Card, rated Carolina among the top 26 universities in the United States and a “Campus Sustainability Leader” for the third year in a row. The Princeton Review gave UNC 96 of 99 possible points and designated it a “College with a Conscience” in its first Green Ratings in 2008.

Landfills, Mattresses and Plastic Bags

With no current plans to open a new county landfill once its operating site closes in a few years, the local solid waste planners at the Orange County Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) are looking for any opportunity to reduce the amount of waste entering its landfill. As an additional measure to reduce unnecessary landfill waste, the SWMD has banned cardboard from the landfill, with major violations being punishable by fines. To avoid paying stiff penalties as a result of move-in weekend transgressions, a program run by the UNC Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling (OWRR) plays a huge role in the effort to keep locally banned cardboard and other recyclables, including plastic bags and film, out of the trash dumpsters. As a part of their recycling program and waste prevention efforts, staff members around campus direct students and their families as to what items can and should be recycled.

Additionally, in 2009, at the request of the SWMD, the UNC Office of Housing and Residential Education started a program to recycle all of the old cotton mattresses being replaced in the student dormitories. This includes recycling the heavy-duty plastic bags wrapped around the new mattresses. The mattress bags and the clean, dry plastic film from move-in weekend is taken to a large chain grocery store in Chapel Hill to be sent back to its distribution center on its empty trailers using its existing backhaul infrastructure.

Program Details

Each summer since 2009, as new mattresses are delivered and installed into dormitories around campus the University contractor installing the mattresses is charged with collecting and recycling the heavy gauge plastic bags that cover each mattress. When several bags of bags are accumulated, the contractor delivers them to a local grocery store, where they are loaded directly into the grocery store’s empty delivery truck. Store employees need only provide access to the trailer and are not typically required to handle the bags. Additionally, honoring the principle of reuse, 50 of the bags are saved each year to be used for bagging film and bags by the OWRR move-in weekend project.

Over the course of move-in weekend each August, about 25 UNC staff members are placed around campus to direct recycling efforts at approximately 30 of the busiest residence halls containing about 4,400 rooms. Employees at these stations direct residents and their families as to what plastic film can be recycled, and the employees collect and bag the film. At the end of each day, staff members collect bags of plastic film from around campus and take them to the same grocery store that accepts the mattress bags. The cost of staffing the recycling centers is offset by avoided cardboard penalty costs.

Present Results and Future Potential

Since the UNC Office of Housing and Residential Education began in its program to recycle mattress bags in 2009, more than 6,000 mattress bags have been recycled. Each bag weighs approximately one pound, meaning 6,000 pounds or 3 tons of premium quality plastic film have been kept out of the Orange County Landfill. Recycling the mattress bags has saved landfill tipping fees for the University and about 150 cubic yards of space in a landfill set to close within a few years. For the UNC Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling, about 1,200 pounds of plastic bags, wraps and film have been collected since 2009 from residential areas on move-in weekends.

The UNC OWRR is pursuing options to roll out a campus-wide effort to collect plastic bags and film. The plan would include collection points near major generators around campus—student stores, dining services and warehouse spaces. Small-sized balers could be placed around campus to deal with the bulky plastic to make it easier to handle and to allow the University to sell the baled plastic to a recycler. With all of the accolades that the University has received for its recycling and sustainability efforts, it won’t be long before they receive notice for their plastic bag and film recycling efforts.