Traditional Recycling Streams

This section of the Task Force report is focused on those materials collected through Penn State’s central sorting stations in the buildings across campus, where faculty, staff, and students place their waste and recyclable materials. Housing, food courts, and athletic venues are covered in other sections. The 2018 Office of Physical Plant Waste Year-End Summary Report indicated that although Penn State was successful in diverting more than 56% of our waste from the landfill, there are many areas for improvement. OPP created this summary report by gathering information from the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority (CCRRA), Organic Material Processing and Education Center (OMPEC), and Lion Surplus to offer the big picture of the University’s total waste and diversion rate. Perhaps the two most important challenges today are first, to reduce overall waste through purchasing decisions and education; and second, to reduce the number of misplaced items (contamination) with sorting infrastructure changes and effective education.

When most people in the Penn State community think about recycling, they think about our multi-bin sorting stations for paper, metal, glass, plastic, and compost. Because this is the face of the Penn State recycling program it is vitally important that it is done well. Separating these many streams of “traditional” recyclables at the source has helped us achieve high diversion rates and, until recently, contamination rates were well within specification for both the CCRRA (which handles and markets recyclables at University Park) and for our own composting operations. However, contamination levels have exceeded allowable rates recently, leading to high rejection rates. Additionally, increased levels of paper and plastic film in our composting system through post-consumer organics collection become windblown litter at the University Park composting site, complicating the composting process and increasing costs.

There is a growing recognition that these systems are no longer enough. It will be important to design a system that can achieve high diversion and low contamination rates while simple and convenient for users. With continuous turnover of students, staff, and visitors, and nearly every member of the Penn State community interacting with the sorting stations daily, traditional recycling is both a tremendous and important educational challenge and opportunity.

A multi-faceted approach is needed to meet these near-term and long-term challenges. In the near term, the recycling sorting station infrastructure must be reconfigured to meet the specifications of current markets with flexibility for the future. Also in the near term, and prior to significant changes, an education and awareness plan is needed to help the community understand what and how to sort. There are several long-term recommendations in this report that could significantly impact these recycling streams, reduce waste, and impact the design of the recycling program even further.

Recommended goals and principles to impact Penn State’s waste stream:

Short Term

  • Decrease waste and increase diversion from the landfill – The first principle in any waste management system should be to reduce total waste and increase diversion. This principle is frequently overlooked because ways to reduce waste often involve fundamental changes to how people live and work. There should be an increased emphasis on waste reduction education and awareness as well as procurement practices that promote the same.
  • Simplify and future-proof the post-consumer collection system – Most contamination issues and misplaced materials were found in the plastics categories. In academic buildings the 2018 Kessler waste audit observed contamination rates of up to 50% in the miscellaneous plastics category; most of this contamination was misplaced plastic bottles and recyclable plastic film that belonged in a neighboring bin. Simplifying the post-consumer collection system to promote effective behavior change is necessary to reduce contamination and increase participation.
  • Maximize participation and recycle stream quality – This should be an overarching principle for changes to the recycling sorting and collection system. Recommended actions that follow are in large part structured to achieve this.
  • Assure efficient investment – Recommendations should consider economics as a criterion.

Long Term

    • Educate the Penn State community about the importance of thoughtful consuming. Constant education reinforcing the principle of thoughtful consuming will ensure ongoing success.
    • Increasing diversion from the landfill
    • Reducing contamination and fees
    • Enhancing Penn State’s reputation as a leader in sustainability
    • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from reduced trips to the landfill


All aspects of this plan for traditional recycling streams necessitates a collaborative effort among the waste management staff and communicators, and the incorporation of behavioral psychology theories in designing programs, campaigns, and messaging. Access to student and staff orientations must be granted by Residence Life and Human Resources, respectively. Recycling training is already part of Finance & Business new staff orientation.

To implement these recommendations, funding will be needed to create and fill a Waste Reduction and Recycling Program Manager position (see description in Appendix V: Proposed Waste Reduction and Recycling Program Manager Position Draft). This person will implement waste reduction strategies. improve the recycling collection infrastructure, and work to develop a branding and educational campaign. This new position will work closely with other waste stakeholders across campus including the Sustainability Institute, Housing and Food Services, the HUB-Robeson Center, Athletics, the Libraries, eateries, and more.

Action plan with target dates

Phase 1: Short Term measures

  1. Sorting and Bin Changes
    1. Reduce the number of bins in the central sorting stations from seven to six. There are presently 15,500 bins on the University Park campus.
      1. Eliminate miscellaneous plastics collection and remove or convert the miscellaneous plastic bins to plastic bottles, jugs, and jars.
        1. Due to market limitations, CCRRA does not accept miscellaneous plastics and presently, the University is paying fines for contamination in the form of recycled miscellaneous plastics taken to them. (1)
        2. Based on the results of the 2018 waste audit, this option would decrease Penn State’s recovery rate slightly but has the potential to reduce contamination.
        3. Eliminate the collection of miscellaneous plastics as soon as signs can be replaced, recycling stations can be modified, and an educational awareness campaign can be conducted.
      2. These recommendations should be in place by fall semester 2019.
    2. Eliminate the collection of stretchy plastic in the plastic bottles recycling stream.
      1. Plastic film (plastic bags) is recyclable only as a clean, homogenous stream and not mixed with other plastics as is currently collected on campus.
      2. According to the 2018 waste audit, “film” collection is a small part of the waste stream. There is not enough plastic film disposed at the central recycling stations to justify separate collection. The University community will be encouraged to take bags to area grocery stores for recycling.
      3. Continue to collect plastic film generated at places where a large amount of consistent and clean material is produced, such as dining halls, central receiving, and, in certain cases, scientific labs.
      4. These recommendations should be in place as soon as the signage can be altered.
    3. Make six-bin sorting stations that are not built into the infrastructure the new standard, allowing for greater flexibility in the future. Signage should be fixed to the bin, rather than the wall. Other station design recommendations include:
      1. Wherever possible, use consistent station design in terms of dimensions, color scheme, signage placement, etc.
      2. Provide a few choices of collection bin styles that will match the aesthetic of the building or location.
      3. Use a consistent ordering of material categories (i.e., how they are arranged from left to right).
      4. Bin openings should not be individualized for different material. This limits flexibility if the items able to be recycled changes in the future.
      5. Color code containers and sections of recovery station as visual cues to the types of materials (e.g., blue for recyclables, green for compost, and gray for refuse).
      6. Wherever possible, provide complete six-bin collection stations so that the person recycling can make the right choice when disposing material.
      7. Changing the design standard to eliminate built-in infrastructure should be in place for the start of fall semester 2019.
    4. Consider reducing the number of outdoor garbage cans or place them more strategically. A pilot should be considered in the 2019-2020 academic year testing how to encourage people to dispose their waste inside of a building.
      1. Outdoor garbage cans will remain at strategic public gathering places, such as plazas, public transportation stops, and outdoor eating areas.
  2. Waste Reduction Strategies
    Waste reduction is the first principle in the mantra Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It is recognized as the most effective way to divert waste from the landfill. Penn State should increase its focus on waste reduction strategies.

    1. Encourage reusable mugs and beverage cups. Reducing single-serve cups will not only reduce waste but will also reduce contamination, as the 2018 waste audit found that single-serve beverage cups were a significant source of contamination in both the paper recycling and compost streams. (2)
      1. All beverages served at Penn State retail dining facilities should be discounted with any reusable cup.
      2. It is necessary to more effectively communicate this discount on a regular basis so that more people are aware and will participate.
    2. Green 2 Go (GTG) containers
      1. At the University Park campus, student interns, the SI and H&FS staff, and a College of Communications class will be studying ways to improve the program in the 2019-2020 academic year. Educating cashier staff is seen as a key step toward improvements, as well as relocation of GTG collection stations.
      2. Explore the possibility of enabling faculty and staff use of GTG containers at University Park eateries.
      3. Outside of University Park campus, G2G will attempt to build pilot programs addressing challenges seen at University Park. These programs will be tailored to each sponsored Commonwealth Campus and evidence of improvement or lack thereof, will be reported back to G2G student interns.
    3. Explore replacing paper towels with rags that could be laundered to wipe down fitness equipment at Rec Hall and the IM Building. Campus Recreation already offers reusable towels for personal use at the IM Building. Explore whether this could be expanded to other recreational facilities and consider whether microfiber towels could be used.
      1. A large portion of the waste from recreation facilities is paper towels. A pilot should be conducted in the 2019-2020 academic year testing the use of reusable towels to wipe down equipment, along with the best ways to maintain and launder them.
    4. Reduce plastic bags on campus. Expand and better promote existing programs on campus.
      1. The Eco Coin program, now in use at Barnes and Noble at University Park is expanding to the Barnes and Noble locations at the Commonwealth Campuses. Nineteen campuses have signed up thus far, and this expansion will be rolled out in the 2019-2020 academic year.
      2. Sell reusable bags at these locations to promote the Eco Coin program.
      3. Explore Retail Dining working with eateries to reduce plastic bags.
      4. For fall 2019, Housing is including information to new students about bringing their own bag to school.
    5. All recommendations should be improved, piloted, or implemented during the 2019-2020 academic calendar.
  3. Compost
    The University Park community diverted nearly 11,000 tons from the landfill in 2018. Food and landscape waste comprised about 4,800 tons (41%) and was processed at the Organic Material Processing and Education Center (OMPEC) producing compost and mulch to be used on campus for landscape purposes, in research, and sold to the community.Of the over 1,500 tons of food waste collected 1,275 tons (85%) were pre- consumer waste collected from dining and food service areas around campus. This food waste collection program has been in place since 1999, it is a good feedstock for making high-quality compost as it is relatively free of contamination. The remaining 225 tons (15%) was from post-consumer, office composting. This collection began in 2015 and is in most campus buildings. This stream is highly contaminated with non-compostable items, which then become litter or are screened out during the composting process. This contamination is 90% of litter generated at OMPEC, and subsequently, roughly 50-60% of this litter is taken to the CCRRA transfer station as trash. The remaining pieces make their way into the finished compost resulting in an inferior product.The 2018 waste audit indicates that organic material has one of the highest potentials in the waste stream for increased capture. This potential cannot be realized given our current capabilities at OMPEC.Very few schools are able to divert their food waste, and this is an area in which Penn State has been leading the way. Most foodservice operations on campus currently appear to do a very good job of diverting pre-consumer food waste to OMPEC, and the systems in place for composting this material are very cost effective. Continuous education of new employees is essential, but beyond that there may not be much improvement Penn State can make in this area, and thus the potential for further returns may be minimal.For post-consumer composting, the potential is great based on the tonnages that are not recovered and the high levels of contamination that could be reduced, but quantifiable returns are unknown at this time as potential solutions need more extensive study. There are very few places around the country that are succeeding with post- consumer composting due to the high percentage of contamination. Substantial investments in organics management are needed to effectively process greater volumes and reducing contamination. These include procuring more biodegradable food service items and better communications to educate and inform students, employees, and visitors in dining areas, which can result in more participation and less contamination. Investments are also needed to address residual contamination and improve processing, and options like depackaging equipment, anaerobic digestion, and increased compost screening should all be considered. A renovated system is likely to have a cost of collection and processing that is higher than landfilling but similar to traditional recycling. This is an area where integration with procurement and partnerships with Dining, Housing, and Vendors is needed.

    1. Maintain collection of compost at central sorting stations until the entire composting program is reviewed.
      1. Office composting is viewed by the University community as an integral part of the recycling program. Unfortunately, office compost is problematic in its current state as it is expensive to collect yet contributes little value to the compost stream and overall diversion from the landfill. (3) However, since there is great potential to increase diversion by capturing more organics for composting or anaerobic digestion, we should maintain the office composting program until a final course of action is determined.
    2. Instruct Custodial and housekeeping employees to handle clean pizza boxes as OCC and soiled pizza boxes as refuse.
      1. Pizza boxes do not break down and are screened/raked out as litter.
    3. Create a dedicated team to investigate and evaluate options, partnering with food service item vendors and firms experienced with post-consumer food waste composting and anaerobic digestion to design, pilot, and implement an integrated and effective system.
  4. Reduced Contamination
    Reducing contamination is a function of the collection system and education and awareness. Suggestions for designing the collection system have been made earlier in this section. Recommendations for educating the University community can be found in the Education and Awareness section of the report.

    1. Redesign the recycling program brand (Mobius) and develop a broad-scale public awareness program to launch concurrently with changes in material categories and redesigned recovery stations.
      1. Specifically focus on redesigning signage and program literature to clearly define material categories in simple terms and high-impact images. Although many programs have focused on picture examples of materials, it is also critical to develop simple, widely understood catch phrases that describe acceptable and unacceptable materials.
    2. Conduct periodic mini-audits of each unit’s recycling effectiveness to provide feedback to the units on how they are doing and where they can improve. Curbside recycling participants in Centre County receive this type of feedback immediately as the CCRRA will not collect unacceptable material, leaving noncompliant materials in curbside bins so that participants learn that item is not recyclable. This has proven to be one of the most effective education efforts for CCRRA.
    3. These recommendations should be studied in the 2019-2020 academic year and implemented for fall semester 2020.
  5. Review Penn State Policy AD34
    1. The policy should be reviewed and updated to reflect implemented recommendations of this report.

Phase 2: Long Term measures

  1. Explore other methods of reducing the number of bins in our centralized sorting stations, including enhancing our relationship with CCRRA by investing in their collection and sorting capabilities; investigating sending recyclables to recycling centers other than CCRRA; further combining recyclables into fewer streams; or having our own Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). All these measures could enhance participation and reduce contamination by simplifying the sorting and collection process.
    1. One long-term measure to improving waste management at Penn State might be an  onsite Material Recovery Facility used to collect, sort, and market waste streams to end-user manufacturers. Based on a model designed and implemented at Michigan State University, a similarly sized Big Ten institution, an on campus MRF could lead to cost reductions and better management of materials over the long term. Moreover, it allows for an integration of educational programs and projects such as campus living lab opportunities that directly align with Penn State’s mission, vision, and institutional values. (Case Study: Materials Recovery Facility at Penn State)
  2. Replace all existing bins (not built-ins) throughout campus to achieve consistency of the collection system and signage. New bins should have integrated signage that is easily changed for future flexibility. This will provide consistency across campus, which should result in increased participation and reduced contamination.
    1. Currently there are inconsistencies in material capture found across campus, as many facilities seem to “do their own thing,” using unsanctioned bins and incorrect signage, causing confusion for students, staff, faculty, and visitors. Replacing existing bins and  signage should alleviate this issue.
    2. Implement a standardized bin program for all campus facilities. The standardized bin system would provide three bin style choices in order to address appropriate aesthetics  for each facility.
      1. Standard bins – Rubbermaid Slim Jim® or equivalent with lid and affixed signage.
      2. Mid-Level – To be determined later after vendor bin evaluation and potential RFP to obtain pricing. These bins would replace metal cubes which have been eliminated due to safety issues and deterioration of appearance over time.
      3. High-End – To be determined later after vendor bin evaluation and potential RFP to obtain pricing. These bins would replace “built-in” stations and credenzas to ensure flexibility when streams change.
    3. Implement a standardized signage program for all bins and stations. The new program could require all signage to be affixed to bins, enhancing flexibility when streams change, and reducing costs when signage changes become necessary. All facilities will use standardized signage for each commodity.
  3. At this time there are several potential solutions that could be implemented to increase organics collection on campus that need further study.
    1. Consider sending all pre-consumer food waste to an anerobic digester, either on campus or elsewhere.
      1. This would be a very good fuel source for the digester but would need to be 90% free of contamination.
      2. Consider contracting with an outside company, such as Reinford Farms in Mifflintown, which has depackaging equipment and experience managing food waste in an anaerobic digester.
      3. If contamination can be reduced and managed, investigate the use of Penn State’s new farm anaerobic digestor for food waste. See Case Study: Anaerobic Digestion at Penn State.
    2. Invest in the Organic Materials Processing and Education Center (OMPEC) so that it can accept a larger volume and variety of compostable materials and appropriately break them down into usable product. Changes to OMPEC would increase our composting capabilities, justifying keeping composting as part of the traditional recycling stream collection at centralized stations.
      1. Currently OMPEC uses aerated or turned windrow composting but this does not work well for compostable food-service ware items.
      2.  Other methods to consider including:
        1. Aerated static pile composting
        2. In-vessel composting
    3. Study the feasibility of all food retailers that serve campus to use only BPI-certified bioproduct and food containers.
      1. Establish standards for compostable packaging for all food services campus-wide. Some concessionaires may challenge such standards due to the increased cost of compostable service ware and the challenge of finding compostable packaging options for the wide range of brands, vendors, and food categories available on campus. Food Service has calculated that fully converting to compostable food-service ware would cost an additional one million dollars annually.
      2. Benchmark with other schools and the U.S. Composting Council.
      3. Ensure that organics are only collected in compostable bags. Several instances were observed where compost was placed in non-compostable bags, for example if a bag ripped, the bag and contents were placed in a standard plastic bag. Film plastic is particularly problematic for compost facilities. Custodial staff should be trained to never place compost in a non-compostable plastic bag.
    4. Explore resuming custodial services in offices to improve the collection of recyclable materials and reduce contamination.
      1. The thinking behind this recommendation is that custodial employees would provide quality control by collecting recyclables from offices and sorting according to the current requirements. This would assure recycling was done correctly and reduce the education and commitment required of faculty and staff.
      2. Faculty and staff would see a corollary benefit of less time spent on recycling. However, this would require additional custodial staff to perform the collection and sorting tasks in offices.
      3. A high-level cost analysis of resuming custodial services in offices will consider the following:
        1. First-cost investment in new office deskside receptacles (waste, recycling, and compost) and utility carts used for collection from offices.
        2. Additional annual recurring labor cost associated with increased service to offices, as well as estimated increase in additional employees.
        3. Cost offsets associated with exploration of removing a percentage of centralized recycling stations.
      4. Detailed cost analysis below in Tables 1, 2, and 3
Table 1 – First Cost for carts and bins
First cost of utility carts $260,000
First cost of waste basket $63,000
First cost of recycling bin $53,000
First cost of compost bin $88,300
Total First Cost Investment for Office $464,300
Table 2 – Increased Custodial Office Service Annual Labor Cost Increase
Total increased hours per week Total hours per year Annual increased cost Added FTE
393 19650 $506,970 10

* For reference, there are 10,513 offices at UP

Table 3 – Cost Offsets Associated with Central Station Reduction
Percentage of Stations Removed Cost Offset Net Annual Cost Increase
after considering Central Station Reduction
Net Required FTE after considering Central Station Reduction
50% $362,813 $144,157 4
40% $290,250 $216,720 6
30% $217,688 $289,282 8

Returns and Impacts

The changes recommended to traditional recycling have the potential increase to diversion from the landfill and reduce contamination and associated fees, while reducing greenhouse gas
emissions and enhancing Penn State’s reputation as a leader in sustainability.

Sample Standardized Bin and Signage Program with Accompanying Costs

Standard (Slim Jim®)

Slim Jim (TM)Assume 9,000 bins currently in field
Cost for Top: $29.25/ea, $263,250
Cost for Signage: $26.00/ea, $234,000
Total Cost to add lids and signage: $497,250

$45/Slim Jim® for new or replacement


Mid-Level: Busch Systems Evolve TM

Busch Systems Evolve TMAssume 2,250 currently in field
Total Cost to replace Mid-Level bins: $675,000




High End: Clean River Transition ® TWZ

Cost per station (6 commodities)

*Approximate cost per station for future projects
**No more built-in stations or credenzas for major renovation or new construction
***Requesting designated/recessed recycling areas in design standards



(1): In one month, we sent 276 tons of dock materials to CCRRA, and they rejected 80 tons, costing the University $9,200 in contamination fees compared to $14,000 charged for disposal.

(2): Presently, Penn State provides a $.25 discount for all reusable cup use across all the Housing and Food Service locations. Au Bon Pain provides a refill price of $1.39 for now. Panda Express does not have a discount price, except free refills, while Saxby’s offers a 10% reuse cup discount and the Bookstore café also discounts $.25 on refills. These discounts are provided on any beverage.

(3): Custodial expends approximately $200,000 annually on labor and material (compostable bags) to collect compost.

Case Study: Materials Recovery Facility at Penn State

A Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) is a system designed to help manage waste generated by an institution or community. Its primary duty is to accept incoming waste (usually, source separated into acceptable streams such as plastics, metal, paper) and prepare those streams for marketing to end-user manufacturers. There are two main types of MRFs: clean and dirty. Clean MRFs accept source-separated streams and prepare for markets; whereas dirty MRFs accepts a solid waste stream and then process and separate streams onsite for end-user manufacturers.

Currently, Penn State sends their separated waste streams to the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority (CCRRA) to be processed at their clean MRF. Thus, the CCRRA has direct control over materials and can select the streams to process on their site based on market value. The University needs to comply with the regulations (contamination rates, streams accepted, etc.) set by the County which can lead to increased costs for disposal if standards are not met. Based on this knowledge, Penn State has charged the Waste Stream Task Force to identify how a MRF would function at the university and research best practices of other institutions similar in size and location.

For solid waste management the standout university within the Big Ten is Michigan State University. Based on size, location, and limited-access markets, they can serve as a model for Penn State. They are also eager to share detailed information and advice. Information provided by Michigan State staff for their project is provided below:

Facilities at Michigan State
Site Square Feet Description
Total Facility 74,000 This includes: the MRF, Surplus Store, and office space
Material Recovery Facility 18,000
Equipment at Michigan State
Equipment Amount Description
Bobcat 2 Used to move and manage waste on the tipping floor
Bailer 1 Used to compact waste and maximize space
Sortline 1 Conveyor belt that uses human labor to manually sort waste into proper streams
Labor Force at Michigan State
Labor Force # Employees Notes
Bobcat Operator 1 Full time employee certified in operating heavy machinery
Bailer Operator 1 Full time employee certified in operating heavy machinery
Student Sorter 10 Paid students on the sortline that manage the waste streams
Waste Stream at Michigan State
Waste Stream Flow Rate (tons/year) Notes
Total 5,000 The waste streams collected at the Recovery Facility are: Office Paper, Mixed Paper, Newspaper, Books, Plastic 1-7, Metal, Cardboard, and Glass (all colors)

To finance this project, Michigan State gained funding by an internal university loan with an expected payback period of 20 years. Currently, the facility has been operating for 10 years and has been making full payments towards the loan, including all their costs for operating and maintenance. Once their payback period is complete, and the loan paid off, this facility will have full control over its revenues and budget, leading to more projects, programs, and initiatives in the future.

The success of this facility is multi-faceted. Not only has MSU gained control of their waste stream, they’ve built upon their successful Surplus Store, and have integrated student involvement such as internships, employment, and campus-as-a-lab projects. The MSU template directly aligns with Penn State’s University Mission, Vision, and Institutional Values. By designing and implementing an on-campus MRF at Penn State, the university will have direct control over their own waste streams. More importantly, they will increase opportunities for education and student engagement while simultaneously signaling to the nation that Penn State cares about sustainability and preservation of planetary resources.

Based on these findings, the Waste Stream Task Force recommends that a feasibility study of an onsite MRF for Penn State be conducted.