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UNC residence halls introduce new plastic film recycling program

dining hall trash
Clarissa Constantin, a senior Arabic major, throws trash in the bin marked for landfill waste at Lenoir Hall on Nov. 14, 2018.

The Residence Hall Association is aiming to be more sustainable than ever, with a new plastic film recycling program that will help clean out the recycling stream and remove plastic from landfills. 

Each on-campus community now offers plastic film recycling at the community office desk. In order to prevent the contamination of recycling, resident advisers and office assistants will handle and recycle the plastic film directly. 

“On-campus residents definitely have the ability to make a huge impact,” said junior Andy Hoang, director of sustainable projects for the Residence Hall Association.

The RHA has been working extensively to promote sustainability in recent years, said Bharat Modi, president of RHA. The plastic film recycling project has been in the works since RHA’s last director of sustainable projects was in office, and the RHA has since released educational material such as laminated information sheets and digital signage to get students on board. 

Hoang said "upwards of a couple thousand dollars" have been invested in purchasing new bins for the plastic film, with one bin in each residential community and 10 extras reserved for RHA events.

Although the project began this past Monday, RHA has already noticed participation from a number of communities, Modi said. 

Plastic film includes grocery bags, Ziploc bags, produce bags, water bottle casing and toilet paper and paper towel wrapping. The primary focus of the program, however, is to recover plastic bags, Hoang said, which is commonly mistaken as recyclable

“We focus on plastic film because it’s a top contaminant for recycling, and it’s a common mistake everyone, including myself, has made,” Hoang said. 

If non-recyclable materials such as plastic film are detected in the normal recycling stream, facility workers often remove the entire batch of recyclables and dispose of it in the trash, Hoang said.

“It’s a big deal for us because if our recycling is contaminated, then it basically is sent to trash,” Hoang said. “And that defeats the whole purpose, both psychologically and in reality.” 

To prevent this, UNC has taken a conservative approach to recycling, Hoang said. 

“We say, ‘If you’re in doubt, throw it out,’” Hoang said. 

Duke University, however, has not been as steadfast in preventing recycling contamination, Hoang said. 

“On the other hand, Duke says if you’re unsure, go ahead and recycle it anyway,” Hoang said. “And that’s a problem because both UNC and Duke send their recyclables to the same place.”

Amy Preble, UNC’s waste diversion coordinator, said the positive impacts of recycling plastic film far outweigh simply reducing the amount of trash the University produces. 

When plastic film is mistakenly recycled, it often catches in the gears of the recycling facility machines, forcing the facility to pause operations every few hours and cut the film out. This accounts for a lot of the injuries at recycling facilities, Preble said. 

Recycling plastic film also helps prevent it from entering the ecosystem, a common result of trash being transported to landfills, Preble said. 

“If they end up in the trash, a lot of times they don’t even make it all the way to the landfill,"
Preble said. “They flow out of dumpsters and out of trash and end up in our waterways, in streams and in oceans, and they can be harmful to marine life and other wildlife.”

Hoang is optimistic about the impact this project will have on students who live in residence halls. Without incentives like paying a utility bill to live conserve water and electricity, it can be difficult to get students involved in sustainable practices, Hoang said. But on-campus residents still have the opportunity to make a change.

“We put in these good practices and these good beliefs at this stage in their lives so that hopefully when they graduate college they’ll still be a sustainable person,” Hoang said. “At the very least, we’re making them knowledgeable and calling to action this issue.”

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