Rise Up and Recycle

Despite efforts to prevent re-usable plastics, USC students have found ways to safely recycle in the pandemic

The start of the pandemic earlier this year caused people’s day-to-day routines to shift. While work from home orders reduced smog in Los Angeles, recycling and waste management continue to exist as issues propelling climate change.

In March, Los Angeles experienced a reduction in operations at recycling plants as they closed temporarily out of safety concerns for workers that sorted recyclables by hand. Instead, recyclables were sent to landfills.

Maintaining a clean environment can be difficult on college campuses. Environmental organizations like the Environmental Student Assembly, however, encourage students to boost their recycling efforts.

Jackson FitzGerald, a junior studying environmental studies and archaeology, serves as the co-executive director of the USC ESA. FitzGerald said he works to bring more awareness to the student body about the significance of recycling and works with the university to do so.

“There is a large education gap, as well as a perceived lack of recycling opportunities that I think can be problematic on campus,” Jackson said. “But the university is trying to fight against these, they have increased the number of recycling bins on campus over the last year, I believe, as well as they are looking for opportunities to increase sustainability literacy among the student body.”

USC sophomore business major Maya Gabi noticed that at West 27th Place, a student living apartment, the trash company threw away recyclables into the same bin as waste. Greystar, the rental housing company that oversees the apartment, did not comment about their trash hauler or an existing recycling program.

Students like Gabi are unable to trust their housing companies which leads to the question: what can students do on an individual basis to maintain a recyclable and sustainable environment during a pandemic?

FitzGerald suggests students begin by wearing reusable masks instead of common, single-wear masks that can be harmful to the environment. The New York Times reported on this issue in July of this year. Nonprofit groups like Oceans Asia found beaches, streets and nature littered with disposable masks.

FitzGerald also mentioned the impact of pausing programs that allow customers to bring in reusable items at local cafes and grocery stores for reuse. He said that it is important for students to find ways to make sure the plastic waste generated from items like plastic bags get recycled or reused for another purpose.

“So, for example, when I go to Target, I used to always have my reusable bag… so instead, I’ve been using the (plastic) bags that I have to get as trash bags, for my mini trash can in my room.”

Both Trader Joe’s and Target in the USC Village now allow customers to bring their own reusable bags; however, customers must bag their items themselves. Trader Joe’s also has a designated bagging area outside with hand sanitizer available.

Trader Joe’s and Target are distributing more plastic bags with the start of a pandemic, but FitzGerald feels USC is progressing towards a more sustainable campus.

“There are great strides being made independently by the Office of Sustainability in waste reduction in terms of reaching the end of their 2020 Sustainability Plan,” he said. “As well as having more ambitious marks to reach in terms of waste reduction in the newly created 2028 sustainability plan.”

The Office of Sustainability released the Sustainability 2020 Plan in 2015 with goals including “diverting 75% of waste from local landfill” and “increase education of waste reduction and recycling and expand diversion and recycling programs.”

USC currently partners with Republic Services to manage a majority of campus waste. The university uses the service to help with zero-waste campus events, water bottle refill stations on campus and the installation of multi-stream waste bins.

FitzGerald says that closing the education gap on recycling at USC will create a more significant focus on sustainability and push USC to be more environmentally friendly.

“With the reduction of waste on campus, this is positioning the university in a perfect spot to start making aims to have a permanent reduction in plastic waste,” FitzGerald said. “And so hopefully, as time goes on, we can see an increase in student knowledge about recycling.”

Mark Murray, the Executive Director of Californians Against Waste, said that commercial waste accounts for about 45% of the overall waste stream normally compared to 35% generated from the residential waste stream. He noted though that these numbers essentially switched as a result of the pandemic.

Murray helped to push the legislation forward requiring all plastic beverage containers to be made using recycled material making California the first state to do so in hopes to increase the recycled content in bottles from 15% to 50% by 2030.

Murray emphasized that students must help the effort to reduce the above statistics by sorting out recyclable items from their trash and staying away from “wishful recycling.”

“If it’s a paper, if it’s a number 1 PET plastic or number 2 HDPE, plastic, glass or steel cans, those materials remain very recyclable,” Murray said. “The two biggest offenders are plastics with a number three to a number seven on them. So if you’ve got a plastic package, plastic wrap or film and it has a number three, four, five, six or seven, those materials are not currently recyclable in California… By putting those in the recycling bin, you’re wishfully hoping that they’ll get recycled.”

Number 1 PET plastics include soda and water bottles, medicine bottles and salad dressing bottles. Number 2 HDPE includes grocery and trash bags.

More information can be found here.

Correction: A previous version of this story originally stated number 1 PVC instead of PET. PVC is number 3 and is generally not recyclable