Throughout Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus, students can find blue recycling bins in most hallways and public areas beside their black or gray counterparts. Although these blue bins are designated for recycling only, many students at YU are under the impression that the bags in these bins are never, in fact, recycled. Instead, they believe that the recycling is mixed together with the refuse (non-recyclable waste) from the black and gray bins.
Zachary Greenberg (SSSB ‘21) is one such student. “I thought there was no recycling on Wilf Campus,” he admitted. “I heard the recycling bins are fake.”
Other students, like Yaacov Siev (YC ‘20), have largely been left in the dark about the state of recycling at YU. “I think there is recycling on campus but to a small degree,” he said. “There are bins for recycling bottles and papers on every floor of the dorms but I feel that only makes up a small amount of YU’s disposal percentage.” He added, “I don’t know if YU recycles. I don’t know their disposal procedures and practices and how it works.”
The doubt that many students at YU have about the university’s recycling policies is a serious issue. For many students, the assumption that YU does not recycle translates into a license to throw non-recyclable materials into recycling bins. Greenberg, for example, stated that he is usually careful to throw recyclable waste into recycling bins, “but not in YU, because I hear that it doesn’t actually matter.”
In our investigation of recycling at YU, we attempted to trace the journey of recyclable materials starting from the moment they are thrown into recycling bins around the Wilf Campus. What should happen to the recyclables at each stage, and what does happen?
In theory, all recycling bins around YU should have transparent blue bags in them, and the recyclables thrown into those bags should make their way to a recycling storage area for weekly pickup by the NYC Department of Sanitation. But when housekeeping employees run out of clear blue bags, they simply line recycling bins with the black garbage bags they have on hand. Those black bags are then thrown into piles with other black garbage bags, and will eventually make their way to the trash compactor with all other non-recyclable waste.
Although David Pianko, Energy Manager at YU, denied that the color of the bag had any impact on whether or not the the waste in a recycling bin would be recycled, Randy Apfelbaum, Chief Facilities & Administrative Officer at YU, confirmed that “black bags will not be processed by the Department of Sanitation as recyclables and should not be used in the dedicated recycle bins.”
This issue affects many recycling bins throughout the Wilf Campus, as a cursory examination of recycling bins throughout the campus confirmed. Approximately two out of five recycling bins on all the floors of Furst Hall, Morgenstern and Rubin Residence Halls, the Glueck Center for Jewish Study and the Gottesman Library had black bags in them.
Apfelbaum acknowledged this issue, stating, “We can and will do a better job of enforcing clear plastic bag use with our housekeeping staff.”
Furthermore, even recyclables like bottles and cans that are thrown in blue bags will not necessarily make their way to the recycling storage area. When a housekeeping staff member notices that a recycling bag contains a considerable amount of refuse mixed in with the recyclable materials, the entire bag will be treated as non-recyclable refuse. Recyclable materials that might be mixed in will end up in the trash compactor along with all other refuse.
According to YU’s Office of Housekeeping, this occurs frequently, since students often throw non-recyclable garbage into recycling bins. Several housekeeping staff members commented that before removing blue recycling bags from their bins, they look inside to see what’s in the bag. If the bag is mostly filled with non-recyclable materials, everything inside will be considered refuse, and will be mixed in with other trash bags. One staff member noted that in his experience, recycling bins at YU are almost always filled with non-recyclable materials.
Non-recyclables that make their way into recycling bins severely limit the amount of waste YU can recycle, but the reverse is also an issue. One housekeeping staff member estimated that YU recycles about 20% of what they could due to students throwing recyclable waste into regular trash bins instead of the recycling bins.
Per NYC guidelines, recycling areas in schools should be set up “wherever recycling and trash is commonly discarded.” According to the guidelines, every recycling bin should be labelled to clarify what waste belongs in each bin. The Commentator found that six floors in different buildings on the Wilf Campus, including four floors in Glueck, had no recycling bins in public areas or hallways.
According to Apfelbaum, this occurs when cleaning staff, students and faculty move bins around. He added that YU has ordered additional bins to replace the bins that have gone missing.
Dining Services on the Wilf Campus do not have their recycling or refuse picked up by YU’s housekeeping staff. Instead, they are responsible for disposing of their own recyclable and non-recyclable waste. For most of this year, the large quantities of recyclable cardboard produced by them have been thrown into the trash compactor instead of being picked up by the Department of Sanitation with the other recyclables. A machine in the loading dock area, once used to crush cardboard for storage before being recycled, had laid unused for months.
According to Dining Services, the large quantity of cardboard waste that the kitchen produces made it effectively impossible to recycle most of it. The storage space for all of YU’s recyclable waste consists of a few bins in the basement of Belfer Hall, which is far from enough space to hold a week’s worth of cardboard from the kitchen alone — ignoring all other recycling from other buildings in the university. Thus, Dining Services has been forced to throw most of their recycling into the trash compactor with other refuse.
Furthermore, despite the insistence of multiple administration members that Yeshiva University recycles, the trash compactor in the basement of Belfer Hall regularly contains clear blue bags filled with shredded paper, blue bags filled with bottles and cans, and heaps of cardboard mixed together with the black refuse bags. Although much of the material in the compactor is recyclable, it will all be picked up by the Department of Sanitation and treated as refuse.
According to Apfelbaum, “Often the recycle bins in the trash compactor area are full and so recyclables are thrown in the compactor so that they don’t accumulate.” Acknowledging that “sometimes mistakes are made,” he added that the university had “ordered larger recycle dumpsters to reduce or eliminate the times when this happens.”
The sheer number of serious issues in the execution of YU’s recycling program may be explained in part by how it views that program. Apfelbaum, referring to the recycling program on the Wilf Campus as a “voluntary” program, stated, “New York City only requires recycling in commercial businesses and residential dwellings. Schools are exempt from the strict requirement but are encouraged to participate.” When asked to clarify, Apfelbaum explained, “Our policy and practice is to endeavor to comply [with the Department of Sanitation’s guidelines for recycling] … We don’t violate the law if we at times neglect to separate the trash.”
New York City law requires that commercial, residential and all other institutional buildings separate recycling bags from other refuse before the trash is collected. According to the NYC Department of Sanitation, these laws apply to private universities like Yeshiva University just as they do to businesses and residences throughout New York City. There is no exemption for schools from laws requiring recycling.
Apfelbaum delineated plans to improve the recycling situation around the university, including increasing the amount of material that YU recycles, making their policies more transparent and encouraging student awareness and participation. “We are constantly working on improvements in our operations,” said Apfelbaum. “We plan on putting out more signage at the recycling areas and will put out a newsletter prior to the start of the school year.”
He particularly stressed the importance of student awareness and cooperation, stating, “Both University Operations and the students need to partner in educating the university community in proper recycling technique … It is the obligation of every person in the university to make sure that they dispose of their waste in the proper receptacles.”
Nonetheless, Apfelbaum acknowledged that there is more work to be done on the university’s end to make sure recycling at YU works as it should. “In the near future, larger recycling dumpsters will be used and a larger area will be created for storage of recyclables in the compactor area of Belfer Hall,” he said.
Dina Stein (SCW ‘19), one of the presidents of the Environmental Club at YU, was not fully satisfied with the situation of recycling at YU. “Although some floors on the uptown campus have recycling bins, there should be more of a presence on campus,” she explained. “Every single floor should provide students and faculty with the opportunity to recycle.”
Although the discrepancies between the policies and practice of recycling at YU are concerning, Apfelbaum confirmed that he is aware more needs to be done to improve the state of recycling at YU. “We can always do a better job of educating students, faculty and staff — and our operations personnel — as to what can and can’t be recycled.”
Photo Caption: Paper, bottles and cardboard are regularly thrown in the trash compactor instead of being stored for recycling.
Photo Credit: Avi Hirsch