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Aligning Chores, Part 1

There are a lot of different materials to recycle on a college or university campus and a lot of steps needed to make recycling work. So how do you decide who does what tasks?

When it comes to operational tasks, I am a strong believer that the answer to that question lies with a different question: if you don’t recycle what happens? If you don’t recycle, who is going to be responsible for picking the stuff up as trash, or cleaning it up as litter? I think the person responsible for the alternative should be the person responsible for the recycling collection.

This does two things, it rewards people for recycling and it penalizes them for not recycling. If you are responsible for trash collection and you do a better job of getting recyclables out of the trash, you have less trash to deal with. That means less time and effort having to be spent picking up trash (since there is less of it) and a lower trash collection cost (since there is less of it). Conversely, if you don’t recycle something, you still have to pick it up as trash, deal with the mess of an overflowing bin, and pay the (typically higher) cost of disposing of it as trash.

If you look around at your peer schools, you will find schools that run a duplicate collection system, with an entirely separate crew of people that do the recycling collection only. If you are in the pilot program phase of your recycling program’s evolution, you may need to start with a separate collection crew until you prove that recycling is viable (check out my earlier blog post “Have You Evolved”). However, long term, it is unlikely that the revenues received from the sale of your recyclables will fully fund the collection containers, labor, and other costs of collecting that material. They shouldn’t have to. There is no need to run a duplicate collection system.

One of the issues with having a recycling-only collection crew is that they have no repercussions for a missed pickup. If a bin is left overflowing, or the recycling is left as trash, it becomes someone else’s problem. When I have run programs with recycling-only collection crews, I have had chronic problems getting recycling picked up in hard-to-find, or hard-to-get-to, locations.

That issue goes away if the same person is doing both the recycling pickup and is responsible for the alternative. If you are responsible for collecting trash and recycling, if you miss a recycling pickup, it still means that you are going to have to pick it up as trash. If you let the bin overflow, you are going to have to deal with the mess. I have found far fewer collection problems in that sort of scenario.

I have also seen a lot of unnecessary finger pointing with separate collection crews. I’m not sure there’s anything more infuriating for a custodial floor crew than to spend hours sweeping, mopping, and may be even buffing a floor, only to have someone drag a dirty-wheeled recycling cart in from outside across their nice clean floor, or leave that Hansel-and-Gretel trail of leaking trash or recycling goo down a recently buffed floor. I have seen several programs that seem determined that for every sheet of paper saved by recycling they are going to waste 2 sheets of paper firing nasty-gram memos back and forth between the custodial manager and recycling coordinator about the floor-mess issue. If your recycling is integrated into the custodial trash collection, they can they easily adjust schedules as needed to accommodate both cleaning and the trash and recycling pickup.

If you run your recycling program as part of an integrated solid waste collection program, the economics also change significantly. If your collection crew is only collecting recyclables, you essentially have to fund all of those costs from the sale of recyclables, which in many situations will not cover all of the costs of collection. However, if you integrate recycling and trash collection, not only do you have the revenue from the sale of your recyclables to fund your recycling collection, you have the avoided landfill savings to tap into. In addition, the base labor is already paid for via the trash collection, so your recycling collection becomes a net-cost as opposed to a full-cost operation.

However, for an integrated system to work, you need to integrate the recycling collection in a way that there are few if any net labor costs. Remember, when you add a recycling program, you are not adding any more stuff. That same amount of stuff is there whether you recycle it or you throw it all away. From a collection standpoint, the only thing you are doing via recycling collection is separating that stuff into multiple bins (instead of it all being mixed together into the trash bin). To realize the benefits of the integrated collection crew you need to revise the collection so that they can pick up these multiple bins with about the same amount of labor (since it is the same amount of total stuff). When that occurs and your net recycling labor costs are minimized or eliminated, the only additional cost you have to cover is container and equipment cost and most of those are an initial one-time cost (though be sure to keep a little money in the budget for cleaning containers, maintaining equipment and replacing both when they are lost or stolen). Because these container and equipment costs are primarily one-time costs, they are viable targets for grant funding or capital funding sources as opposed to funding out of your annual maintenance budget.

For routine trash and recyclables, there are a couple different ways to integrate the collection with little or no net increase in labor. One is to pick up trash and recycling on alternating days. The other is to invest in a co-collection cart that allows collection crews to collect multiple materials at the same time. That can include carts that train together, custodial cleaning cart that replace one larger trash cart with multiple smaller carts, or some sort of saddle basket that sits on the side of an existing collection cart. I have even seen custodians create their own integrated collection or saddle-collection with nothing more than an extra plastic bag innovatively strung on the inside of a bin or tied to the outside of a collection cart. You might even look to a combination of techniques such as an office collection program that relies on alternating schedules to do trash vs. office paper collection and then uses a saddle basket or bag collection for any incidental quantities of bottles and cans. Whichever way to do this, there should not be any significant marginal increase in labor cost to do the recycling collection (you are just using that labor slightly differently).

Additional benefits can also be realized with the right equipment. Think about the needs of this integrated collection crew. What is going to work best for them to make recycling work? In several of the systems that I have converted to an integrated trash and recycling collection started with a traditional 2-yard or 4-yard dumpster for trash. Custodians collected trash in a traditional 40-gallon custodial barrel and when that barrel was full, they brought it outside and lifted it up and dumped it into the dumpster. When I added recycling collection to that crew, they started collecting the paper in 90-gallon semi-automated wheeled carts. The advantage for the custodial staff was that once the cart was full of paper, it was left in a central consolidation area to be emptied by a truck that had a hydraulic cart dumper on it. That meant that the hundreds of tons of paper no longer had to be manually lifted into the trash dumpster. The resulting improvement in efficiency, worker safety, and morale led to a significant increase in the amount of paper recovered and perhaps more importantly has maintained that increase for many years.

How have you assigned chores on your campus? Are you getting the best bang for your collection dollar? Tell us what you think. Feedback and questions are always welcome.

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Roger Guzowski

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