The University Record, March 1, 1993

Custodians have inside scoop on recycling activities

From Plant Grounds and Waste Management

Who knows the most about recycling habits around campus? The custodians who empty the recycling cans, of course.

The Recycling Office in Plant Grounds and Waste Management informally surveyed 25 percent of Building Services’ custodial staff last fall to assess the recycling program. The 92 custodians, who work in 46 campus buildings, were asked to comment on the program in a 10-minute questionnaire conducted by Erica M. Spiegel, special projects coordinator, and Kate Hornbarger, a first-year graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

This is the first time since the inception of the office paper recycling program in 1990 that the office has taken a comprehensive look at how the program is running and, Spiegel says, the results shed some light on what is happening in different buildings on campus.

When asked if they ever find recyclable paper, such as office paper, in the trash, 95 percent of the respondents said “yes.”

Custodians also were asked to indicate the areas where people are not recycling. Faculty offices were identified by 29 percent of the respondents, staff offices by 24 percent and classroom areas by 27 percent.

Why don’t more building occupants recycle? Many custodians believe it may be a case of laziness or being too busy. The convenience of too many trash cans and a lack of information or signs about the recycling program are factors, according to custodians.

Forty-nine percent of the custodians reported that they have, at least once, thrown away a bag of recyclable paper because it was contaminated with trash or non-recyclable paper. Seven percent of the custodians report doing this weekly. Food waste, soda pop, coffee cups and candy wrappers are common contaminants as is non-recyclable paper, including self-adhesive notes, paper towels, bound books and magazines, and ream wrappers (from copier paper).

Custodians are not required to do any sorting of the paper, Spiegel explains, but are trained to do “quality control.” They know what paper is not acceptable for recycling and check the bags when they empty the recycling cans. If there is any sign of food waste, the bag is put in the trash.

About 85 percent of the custodians reported seeing staff and faculty using at-desk containers for recycling. Only 16 percent of the custodians reported seeing the boxes used for other purposes, such as “mail boxes” and flower holders.

Despite the “glitches” identified, almost 75 percent of custodians felt that building occupants—students, faculty and staff alike—support recycling. A vast majority of the custodians said they personally support the recycling program although some reported it has added to their work load. Sixty-five percent of the custodians re-use the plastic bags used to transport paper to the recycling bins at the loading docks.

Custodial staff also said leftover copies of the Michigan Daily are a problem. Many have not been read and are hauled to the recycling carts directly from the distribution boxes, Spiegel says.

In some buildings, the disposal of polystyrene (“styrofoam”) peanuts is a problem. University Stores takes back the peanuts for re-use if they are bagged in plastic and left in a building’s receiving area.

Overall, custodians are very aware of the amount of waste produced in each building. Some were quite candid about how “wasteful” building occupants can be. According to one, there’s “too much copying” going on at the Institute for Social Research even if it ends up in the recycling bins.

A custodian in the School of Business Administration suggested that people “should be more accountable (or charged for) their waste because they use a lot (of paper) and then throw it away.”

Spiegel agrees that more emphasis on waste reduction is needed. “I think some people feel it’s okay to use up paper if they’re eventually going to recycle it. I cringe when I see entire boxes of unused brochures, applications or program guides that end up in our recycling bins. Not using so much paper in the first place is by far the least wasteful and least costly approach.”