USC’s new recycling bins aim for sustainability, but will students sort their trash?

“We have an opportunity to learn what’s working and where we can improve,” Gina Whisenant, USC’s waste and recycling supervisor, said.

The new multi-stream recycling bins initiative at USC has been questioned by some students. The bins have been implemented all over, including at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, McCarthy Quad, the USC Village and Wallis Annenberg Hall.

However, this is the first time most students are using them. The bins were first introduced in November 2020 while classes were still being held online.

The university released a video last Tuesday to teach students how to correctly use the bins. The large gray bins have four different compartments: landfill, recycle, compost and liquid. Categorizing trash saves production and energy costs and reduces the negative impact of extracting and processing raw materials, according to a recent Stanford study.

“USC can now collect our recycling and compost on site and successfully divert them away from landfills,” Gina Whisenant, USC’s waste and recycling supervisor, said in an email to Annenberg Media. “The former waste bins did not allow for the separation of recycling and composting on site.”

USC earned a silver star last week from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) based on the university’s environmental impact. USC installed the sustainability bins as a part of its first steps in the 2020 Sustainability Plan.

In an effort to aid proper waste segregation, the bins include graphics instructing what can and cannot go in each section. However, some students feel that there is still confusion surrounding the usage of them. Some students have called upon USC Sustainability to post about them on social media to raise awareness of the existence of the bins and promote correct usage.

“I feel like a lot of people are on TikTok,” Taryn Slater, a sophomore studying business cinematic arts, said in an interview. “So, maybe if they made a TikTok about the sustainability bins and how to use them, people would probably watch it and promote it everywhere.”

When non-recyclable materials make up a certain percentage of a batch, the batch is considered contaminated and is sent to landfills, according to the University of Michigan.

“A lot of the sections [of the bins] are just filled with random trash that aren’t supposed to be there,” Slater said.

Amogh Bansal, president of the Sustainability Project and a senior business administration major, said the university could better help students understand the new waste system.

“Having small colored stickers, which [USC] could just put on to-go boxes so that people know–this needs to go into the green bin, and this needs to go into the blue bin” could make proper recycling more intuitive for students,” Bansal said in an interview.

More bins will be installed at other locations around UPC and HSC campuses over the next few months, according to Whisenant. Data on the bin collection shows there are opportunities to improve. USC uses “Zero Waste Auditors,” which has found 85-90% efficacy in recycling streams, while compost streams are approximately 50% clean.

“With the Trojan community back on campus, we have an opportunity to learn what’s working and where we can improve,” Whisenant said. “These audits are showing we have room for improvement as we continue to educate and engage our community on achieving a zero waste campus.”

One of the sustainability goals set by the university was to achieve 75% waste diversion levels by 2020. As of December 2020, these levels are at almost 34%, partly due to the city of Los Angeles requiring waste separation.