How the recycling cycle works at UConn

Before someone drops off their recyclable items, food should be washed out of them, if permissible, McKee said. Food and liquids can ruin recyclables like paper and cardboard. (Dano/Flickr Creative Commons)

In 2018 alone, UConn diverted 1,250 tons of waste, including food waste, from incineration plants. The first step of this process comes from the UConn population knowing what can be recycled, what cannot and where they can recycle, Patrick McKee, Sustainability Program Manager from the Office of Environmental Policy said.

The more common recyclable materials of paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, glass and mixed plastic can be dropped of in any labeled “single stream” recycling container on campus, such as the ones in dormitories, McKee said. Other recyclable objects have specific locations to be dropped off.

“Electronic waste, batteries and printer cartridges can be dropped off for recycling at the Student Union, Library and Bookstore,” McKee said. “The university also collects items like scrap metals, fluorescent lamps and other materials from construction and renovation projects for recycling.”

For plastics, most mixed plastics can be recycled through UConn’s recycler Willimantic Waste, McKee said. The exceptions come from specific products, like bubble wrap.

“Some common items which are not [recyclable] would be things like plastic bags, Styrofoam, plastic straws, plastic cup lids, bubble wrap, shrink wrap and Amazon bubble envelopes,” Mckee said. “Thin plastic films get caught in the recycling machinery at [Williminatic] Waste and can cause damage.”

Despite the implementation of paper straws all over campus, both paper and plastic straws cannot be recycled, McKee said.

“Plastic straws were never recyclable to begin with,” McKee said. “Paper straws can’t be recycled either because they are wet.”

Before someone drops off their recyclable items, food should be washed out of them, if permissible, McKee said. Food and liquids can ruin recyclables like paper and cardboard.

“Be practical about it though. Don’t waste 20 gallons of water to rinse out a peanut butter jar,” McKee said. “A couple of drops in an empty soda can isn’t going to ruin the whole bag of recycling, but a full cup of coffee will.”

The way to tell the difference between a trash and recycling container on campus is the color of the bag, according to a Willimantic Waste flyer. Trash cans will always have black bags and recycling cans will be clear.

UConn uses single stream recycling on campus, meaning all recyclable items can be placed in one container, McKee said. Multiple stream recycling, better known as source separation, is when the consumer has to sort the items on their own and is not typically used.

“[Source separation] puts more responsibility on consumers to sort items appropriately and is generally only required when recyclers’ infrastructure is not capable of sorting items efficiently mechanically,” McKee said.

Once recycling containers are filled, custodians move the bags to recycling dumpsters and compactors, McKee said. Willimantic Waste will pick up the recycling and bring the bags to their sorting facility.

At the sorting facility, workers at Willimantic Waste will separate the items by material type and get rid of anything that cannot be recycled that got in, McKee said. Once the like recyclable items are together, they are pressed into bales they are sold to re-manufacturers.

“Willimantic Waste uses heavy machinery like loaders and bulldozers to move recyclables around their facility,” McKee said. “They then dump recyclables onto a conveyor belt system with other computerized machinery to help separate recyclable waste items by material type. Employees also will pick off contaminants like plastic bags before they get tangles in machinery.”

Recycled items do not go to landfills, as there as “virtually no landfills in Connecticut,” McKee said.

McKee said that he guessed that the most common recycled item is plastic bottles, but one never knows what they might find at the recycling company.

“ I’d probably guess plastic bottles but have no idea. We don’t dig through the bins,” McKee said. “I did hear once at a previous university that their recycling company found a prosthetic leg.”


Rachel Philipson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.philipson@uconn.edu.