Recycling at Columbia is complicated. Each campus has different rules that often differ from municipal laws or our hometown laws.

Bwog spoke with Cathy Resler from the office of Environmental Stewardship to find out more. Simply put, Barnard College recycles everything. Columbia’s Morningside campus, however, follows city laws.

The flowcharts often posted near recycling centers are too long and detailed for most people to bother with, and as a result, recyclables are often contaminated with unrecyclable materials.

To simplify your life, we have created a Handy Flowchart Thinger that should answer the constant question, “Can I recycle this?” Beware, this chart is only valid for the main Columbia Campus–not TC, MC, or Lamont-Doherty (click here for a printable black-on-white version):

Click for a large PDF version

Click for a large pretty PDF.

“But why,” you ask, “does Columbia only recycle certain materials?” We answer that question after the jump.

The most complicated rules for recycling involve plastics, says Resler.  Contrary to what many believe, the city (and, therefore, Columbia) does not recycle based solely on the numbers on the bottom.  Municipal law states that only plastic bottles and jugs may be recycled, and only those whose necks are smaller than their bodies when the caps are removed.  That includes milk jugs and shampoo bottles but not yogurt cups.  No plastic lids or caps of any kind are recyclable–they must be thrown away.  The origin of this bizarre rule is an old law that the city always decides to refrain from updating.  The neck-smaller-than-body relationship used to relate to the type of plastic the bottles were made from.

Recycling paper is somewhat simpler.  Any clean, dry, unwaxed paper or cardboard (or any cardboard marked with a recycling symbol) can be recycled.  This does include pizza boxes, but not orange juice or milk cartons.  If there’s any grease or food left, use scissors to cut it out or scrape it off.  Contaminates and liquids (like water) destroy the integrity of the fiber and render it unrecyclable.  Resler also says that any paper that is bathroom- or body-related cannot be recycled, such as toilet paper and paper towels, even if it is clean.

Metal is the simplest to recycle.  The city accepts anything that is at least 50% metal, such as clothes irons and clean tin foil.

In general, all recyclables must be in clear plastic bags and all trash in black plastic bags.  This is so city workers can easily inspect to make sure that only recyclables are being processed.

Columbia is insistent on these rules because they’re stuck in a catch-22.  If Columbia puts out bags of non-recyclables mixed with recyclables in the same bag, they can be fined by the city.  It is also illegal to not recycle recyclable materials.  Resler stresses the importance of students sorting their waste correctly: union rules forbid Columbia employees from reaching into bags of waste to remove incorrectly sorted materials for safety reasons (sharp edges, such as improperly disposed-of hypodermic needles, are a hazard).

When asked why Columbia does not offer a more comprehensive recycling program like Barnard does, Resler cited reasons of cost, availability, and carbon-neutrality.  Most facilities that recycle all plastics, such as #3 – #7, are located far away from Manhattan.  California sends much of its waste from single-stream recycling (all recyclables in one bin) facilities to China to be sorted and recycled, raising environmental and labor concerns.  Paper that is sent to China on ships has degraded in quality by the time it arrives due to the humidity.  In addition, there are only a few haulers in the United States that handle all plastics.  Sprint Recycling, which used to handle NYU’s recycling, recently went bankrupt, leaving NYU without a backup.  Action Carting Recycling, which handles Barnard’s recycling, is very expensive.

Rest assured that paper, plastic, and metal are not all that this university recycles.  Columbia does quite a bit to reduce its environmental impact and is always looking for ways to improve.  We’ll be covering more of that in future posts.  For more information, check out the website of Environmental Stewardship.