University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Quad Recycling Containers


Cylindrical concrete bins for outdoor waste collection
Retrofitted waste receptacles for collection of trash (labeled “Landfill”) and recycling.

Project Title: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Quad Recycling Containers

Sector: Higher Education
Location: Champaign-Urbana, IL 
Services: Implementation Assistance, Fostering Sustainable Behavior

Background: The Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s roadmap to reducing the campus carbon footprint and achieving carbon neutrality. Since the development of the iCAP, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) has worked with UI Facilities and Services (F&S) on multiple projects to facilitate achievement of a 45% campus waste diversion target by 2020, as part of the overarching campus carbon neutrality efforts. See “Other projects with this client” below for further details.

As part of continuous improvement efforts, in the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015 TAP worked with F&S to improve the collection of recyclables on and around the main campus quadrangle, known as “the Quad.”

Approach: Prior to the implementation of this project, separate outdoor recycling bins were not available on the Quad.  Rather, receptacle lids indicated trash and recycling should be commingled; materials collected from those commingled bins were subsequently lightly sorted at the University Waste Transfer Station (WTS) for visible aluminum beverage cans and plastic beverage bottles #1 and #2. All other materials collected were sent to the landfill. Off-campus, in the surrounding communities, a wider range of plastics are collected by haulers, so many people coming to campus had a perception that those same materials would be recyclable on campus. This situation, coupled with a lack of dedicated recycling containers on the Quad, led to a high degree of contamination and the resulting loss of recyclable materials to the landfill-bound stream. It also perpetuated long-standing misconceptions among members of the campus community that materials from ANY waste bin on campus were subsequently sorted at the WTS–leading many people to think that placing recyclables in a waste (landfill-bound) container was acceptable, even in areas/buildings where separate collection bins for recyclables were provided. Many people believed that such behavior was “ok,” because recyclables would be captured at the WTS. The reality was that additional hand-sorting at the WTS only occurred for waste collected from certain facilities and spaces, not ALL spaces on campus, and that not all materials deemed “recyclable” in surrounding communities were collected for recycling on campus. Clearly, changes were necessary to the collection infrastructure on the Quad, as a high-traffic area, to begin to break down misconceptions and improper behaviors on campus.

Outdoor concrete waste bin with lid labeled for both trash and recyclables
Previously used standalone bins did not include clear behavior cues.

The plan to improve collection efficacy and messaging was to introduce 20 new recycling bins to be paired with existing bins on the Quad, turning 40 stand-alone containers into 30 waste/recycling stations. To achieve this in a cost-effective manner, it was decided to retrofit the existing outdoor, cylindrical concrete waste receptacles from the Quad so that some would be clearly labeled and color-coded for recycling and others for landfill-bound trash.  In addition to the expanded bin options, signage would be placed in the buildings surrounding the Quad to launch the new recycling procedures and clarify what materials could be recycled. To measure the impact of this project, waste audits of materials placed in trash containers were conducted before and after the proposed changes, October 2014 and April 2015, respectively.

ISTC worked with F&S to coordinate the sample collection for the waste characterizations. Each trash bin (labeled “Landfill” after receptacle retrofitting) was emptied and was lined with a trash bag for ease of collection. Samples were collected early in the morning to accommodate the regular schedule of the waste collection staff and the bins were relined with a trash bag for the next sample. For the post-implementation audits, the samples were collected from both the designated “landfill” and “recycling” bins. Waste sorting was conducted at ISTC. All samples were sorted into three categories:

  • Bottles & Cans: Included #1 & #2 plastic bottles and aluminum beverage cans
  • Recycled in the Community: Included materials recycled by the City of Urbana’s U-Cycle Program
  • Landfill: Materials that were neither recycled on campus or by the U-Cycle Program

Results: Waste audits revealed the presence of retrofitted separate bin waste/recycling stations resulted in significantly less recyclable material being sent to the landfill, although there was still significant contamination of the designated recycling bins with trash or materials not recyclable on campus. More than 50% of the material in designated recycling bins in the April 2015 audit was trash, approximately 25% was “Bottles & Cans” recyclable on campus, and approximately 22% was material recyclable in the broader community but not on campus. At the time of the post-implementation audit, the bins had only been out on the Quad for about a week. TAP recommended increased education and outreach to help reduce contamination of the recycling stream, as well as improvements in collection routes to reduce trash overflow being placed in designated recycling bins. TAP further recommended that only the recycling stream be sent to the WTS for a secondary sort to reduce the amount of material needing to be sorted and to improve the capture rate for “bottles & cans.” Finally, TAP recommended that the University increase the number of commodities collected for recycling on campus to decrease confusion. 

Other projects with this client: