Campus was still sleeping when Chuck Schlichtmann climbed into the driver’s seat of his recycling truck last Wednesday.
He pulled out of the University of Minnesota’s recycling facility lot on Como Avenue, starting his eight-hour day of collecting paper, plastic and metal from stops around the University.
The Twin Cities campus produces between 22 and 24 million pounds of garbage and recycling each year, and it’s up to Schlichtmann and other drivers, sorters, custodians and managers to deal with it.
Recycling is a growing part of the University’s waste management strategy. Schlichtmann carts and collects recyclables at about 35 stops on the East and West Bank campuses Tuesdays through Saturdays. With the largest recycling route, he plays a big role in diverting 42 percent — up nearly 7 percent since 2008 — of the school’s total waste from landfills and trash incinerators.
The University recovers about $300,000 a year in costs by selling paper to mills in Duluth, Minn., and Canada, plastic bottles to plants in Ohio and aluminum cans to local scrap metal dealers. But the school still spends about $2 million to handle waste, $600,000 of which is spent on recycling alone.
The Board of Regents mandates recycling at the University — and it’s cheaper than sending everything to the landfill, said Paul Drews, the facilities team manager at the Como Recycling Facility.
There’s a broader benefit, too.
“If you recycle something, you’re capturing the energy that’s been invested,” said Dana Donatucci, director of the University’s recycling program. “So you’re reducing the amount of energy to create replacements.”
A streamlined system
The streets were quiet as Schlichtmann’s Chevy lift-gate truck rumbled down University Avenue on the way to Centennial Hall.
Busy stops, like those surrounding Northrop Mall and the Carlson School of Management, have to be taken care of before students overtake them on their way to classes.
Students, faculty and staff members play a big role in the recycling process: its first step — and the one the University’s recycling awareness efforts focus on — is the consumer’s choice between throwing away an object or recycling it.
Convenience is key, Donatucci said.
More than 24,000 recycling bins scattered across the Twin Cities campus collect discarded bottles, cans and paper.
The University uses a comingled recycling system — materials are separated into cans and bottles, office paper and “newspaper plus” at the point of disposal and further sorted at the Como facility later.
On their regular cleaning rounds, custodians empty the maroon, yellow and gray recycling bins into big hampers on loading docks or in designated recycling rooms tucked away in most campus buildings.
That’s where truck drivers like Schlichtmann go for pickup. He has the largest route, while two other drivers cover bigger stops like Coffman Union and the St. Paul campus.
Schlichtmann waved to other University drivers as he passed them on the road. He said people are a big part of what he likes about his job.
‘Can’t wake them up too early’
A half-hour into his route, Schlichtmann greeted another early riser, David Upsher, who drives the University’s compost truck, at Centennial Hall’s underground loading dock.
Upsher collects food waste and biodegradable containers from residence halls and other locations like Coffman Union.
Some of the University’s growing sustainability efforts are in composting — something the school tried unsuccessfully to launch in both 1989 and 1996, before there were industrial compost facilities in the Twin Cities to support its efforts.
Donatucci predicts the University’s composting could eclipse other forms of recycling in terms of weight once compost collection in campus buildings is more developed.
After rounds, a driver brings a truckload of compost to a transfer station in Brooklyn Park, Minn., each day.
“This way it doesn’t smell bad,” Upsher said.
Last year, the University collected about 1,000 tons of organics, Donatucci said — but that’s just 40 percent of its capacity.
As he pulled out of the dock, Schlichtmann turned his truck lights off so they wouldn’t shine in students’ residence hall windows at 5:30 a.m.
“Can’t wake them up too early,” he said. “I start at 5 o’clock so I can get done with Pleasant Avenue, where all the students are … [They’re] stops you have to get done with before 8 o’clock or you know you can forget it.”
He listens to K102 and refills his coffee mug periodically to keep himself going. He often calls in trying to win concert tickets.
A few hours and nine stops later, Schlichtmann returned to the Como facility to unload.
Most days, he brings three full loads to the Como facility, where he weighs and empties his truck. Each load contains between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of recyclables, he said.
Schlichtmann moved the loaded hampers from his truck into a staging area to be emptied onto conveyor belts. Students and facilities workers sort the cans, bottles and papers, which are transported into hydraulic balers by more conveyer belts.
His shift ended by 1:30 p.m. — in time to coach soccer at Andover High School.
One to 2 percent of the materials are too contaminated to be recycled, Donatucci said.
Sorting machines, balers and hoppers roared, and “Mountain Dew Mountain” — an enormous pile of soda bottles — waited to be compacted into movable units for sale.
In another room, old refrigerators, coffee pots, microwaves and scrap metals waited to be recycled.
The business of recycling
Only a handful of colleges process and sell their own recyclables like the University does — watching market prices to get top dollar.
The University recovers about $300,000 per year through its recycling program — plus an additional $170,000 in savings from not sending that material to a landfill or incinerator, said Brad Hoff, chief administrative officer for facilities management.
That money is funneled back into the recycling program to help cover its costs.
“It costs money to recycle,” Drews said, “We recover expenses as much as we can.”
Aluminum cans are worth about 2 cents apiece; pop bottles get 1.2 cents. At 12 cents per pound, high-grade paper, like office paper, is the biggest moneymaker.
The University’s Twin Cities campus has a silver score and a rating of 60.36 out of 100 points from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education‘s Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System, which rates colleges and universities based on education, research and operations. Though Indiana University-Bloomington, University of Michigan and Pennsylvania State University also have silver ratings, the University of Minnesota has the most points of any participating Big Ten school.
Paul Rowland, executive director of the AASHE, said it’s part of a university’s role in educating future leaders to stay at the forefront of sustainability.
“[Colleges have] the opportunity to provide a context for understanding how to build a sustainable society, just because of the way they behave,” he said.
Trash to energy
The University hasn’t sent any trash to a landfill for a year.
Some students are still awake when the University’s lone trash truck starts rolling around 3 a.m.
Instead of running five garbage trucks around campus like it used to, the University has reduced it to one — thanks to powerful trash compactors, Donatucci said.
Instead, trash is taken to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center’s incinerator, a downtown Minneapolis facility that annually burns 365,000 tons of garbage to generate energy, sending it back into the power grid. The facility provides enough electricity for 25,000 homes each year.
‘These are resources’
The University’s current recycling system began in 1983, and Donatucci has worked with recycling at the University since 1988. Since then, he said, the school’s challenges with conservation have changed.
“We’d say recycle, recycle, recycle! And people would say, ‘Where?’” he said.
Now the infrastructure is in place, and it’s mostly a matter of convenience, he said.
Scattered sustainability efforts began at American colleges and universities in the ’60s and ’70s — right around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970.
Despite wind and rain, about 350 attended the University’s first Earth Day rally, in April 1970, where speakers condemned local companies, the government and the University itself for polluting the earth. They presented awards to companies that recycled materials.
By sorting materials on-site, the University can separate materials — like papers — and receive more money for the high-grade items.
Effective recycling depends on a culture that promotes it, Donatucci said.
“People realize that these are resources,” he said, “and if we’re just throwing them away, we’re losing them.”
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