Traditional Recycling

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 Waste Report from the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority (CCRRA) indicated that although Penn State was successful in diverting more than 56 percent of our waste from the landfill, there are many areas for improvement. Perhaps the most important challenge today is 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 Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority (which handles and markets recyclables at University Park) and for our own composting operations. However, allowable contamination levels have been reduced, leading to high rejection rates. Similarly, 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 as well that could 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 and 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 waste audit observed contamination rates of up to 50 percent 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.


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 recycling coordinator position, to improve the recycling collection infrastructure, hire a consultant to develop a branding and educational campaign, and implement waste reduction strategies.

Action plan with target dates

Phase 1: Short Term measures

1. Sorting and Bin Changes

  • Reduce the number of bins in the central sorting stations from seven to six. There are presently 15,500 bins on the UP campus.
    • Eliminate miscellaneous plastics collection and remove or convert the miscellaneous plastic bins to plastic bottles, jugs, and jars.
      • 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)
      • 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.
      • Eliminate the collection of miscellaneous plastics as soon as signs can be replaced, recycling stations can be modified, and an educational awareness campaign is conducted.
    • These recommendations should be in place for the start of fall semester 2019.
  • Eliminate the collection of stretchy plastic in the plastic bottles recycling stream.
    • Plastic film (plastic bags) is recyclable only as a clean, homogenous stream and not mixed with other plastics as is currently done on campus.
    • 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.
    • Collect plastic film generated at places where a large amount of consistent and clean material is produced, such as dining halls and central receiving.
    • These recommendations should be in place for the start of fall semester 2019.
  • Maintain collection of compost at central sorting stations until the entire composting program is reviewed.
    • Office composting 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. However, it is viewed by the University community as an integral part of the recycling program. (2)
  • Make six bin sorting stations that are not built into the infrastructure the new standard. Signage should be fixed to the bin, rather than the wall. Other station design recommendations include:
    • Wherever possible, use consistent station design in terms of dimensions, color scheme, signage placement, etc.
    • Provide several choices of collection bin styles that will match the aesthetic of the building or location.*
    • Use a consistent ordering of material categories (i.e., how they are arranged from left to right).*
    • Bin openings should not be individualized for different material. This limits flexibility if the items recycled changes in the future.*
    • 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).*
    • Wherever possible, provide complete six-bin collection stations so that the person recycling can make the right choice when disposing material.*
    • Changing the design standard to eliminate built-in infrastructure should be in place for the start of fall semester 2019.  (* = should be in place by Fall 2020)
  • Reduce the number of outdoor garbage cans or place them more strategically
    • Encourage people to dispose their waste inside of a building. This should be tested through a pilot in summer 2019.
    • Outdoor garbage cans should 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.

  • 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. (3)
    • All beverages served at Penn State retail dining facilities should be discounted with any reusable cup.
    • It is necessary to more effectively communicate this discount on a regular basis so that more people are aware and will participate.
  • Green 2 Go containers
    • At the University Park campus, students and the H&FS staff will be studying expansion of the program. Educating cashier staff is seen as a key step toward improvements, as well as relocation of GTG collection stations.
  • 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.
  • Reduce plastic bags on campus. Expand and better promote existing programs on campus.
    • The Eco Coin program, now in use at Barnes and Noble at University Park is expanding to the Barnes and Noble locations at the CWCs. Nineteen campuses have signed up thus far. Expand this to all campus-operated convenience stores for fall 2019.
    • Sell reusable bags at these locations to promote the Eco Coin program.
    • Explore Retail Dining working with eateries to reduce plastic bags.
    • Ask Housing to include information to new students about bringing their own bag to school.
  • All recommendations should be improved, piloted, or implemented during the 2019-20 academic calendar.

3. 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.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • These recommendations should be studied in the 2019-20 academic year and implemented for fall semester 2020.

4. Review Penn State Policy AD34

  • The policy should be reviewed and updated to reflect implemented recommendations of this report.

Phase 2: Long Term measures

  • Explore other methods of reducing the number of bins in our centralized sorting stations, including investigating sending recyclables to recycling centers other than CCRRA; further combining recyclables into fewer streams, or having our own Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). All of these measures could enhance participation and reduce contamination by simplifying the sorting and collection process.
  • 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.
  • Explore changes to enhance capability at OMPEC (Organic Material Processing and Education Center). Currently, our own ability to realize the full potential of composting on the University Park campus is limited by OMPEC’s capability and capacity. 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. Changes to OMPEC would increase our composting capabilities, justifying keeping composting as part of the traditional recycling stream collection at centralized stations.
  • Explore resuming custodial services in offices to improve the collection of recyclable materials and reduce contamination.
    • 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.
    • 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.

Returns and Impacts

Potential costs for changes recommended include:

  1. A permanent recycling coordinator position
  2. A rebranding campaign including marketing and communications efforts and materials
  3. Signage and bin changes
  4. Changes to OMPEC to allow for increased composting capture
  5. Switching to compostable service ware
  6. Purchase and installation of jet hand-dryers and associated electric consumption charges
  7. Gym towel purchase and program change

Long-term benefits will include:

  1. Increasing diversion from the landfill
  2. Reducing contamination and fees
  3. Enhancing Penn State’s reputation as a leader in sustainability
  4. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from reduced trips to the landfill


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

(3): 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.