Hanging from a tree above Red Square earlier this month, aluminum cans, water bottles and plastic containers clashed sharply with Georgetown University’s manicured landscape of and drew people’s attention to the problem of recycling that has long plagued Georgetown’s campus. Members of the Georgetown Renewable Energy and Environmental Network, led by Shelby Gresch (SFS ’22) and Lucy Chatfield (COL ’22), built this art installation entirely from discarded recyclables.
Despite the rumors, controversy and memes highlighting the Georgetown administration’s past failures to recycle plastics, this installation was not a message directed at university administrators. In recent semesters, Georgetown has made strides to uphold its end of the bargain. New developments including a new recycling pilot program and the improvement of recycling bin labeling aim to improve the ease and clarity of recycling on campus.
With the administration committing to actionable steps to improve plastic recycling on campus, the responsibility now falls to students support these initiatives by sorting and disposing of their recyclables appropriately.
GREEN members sourced materials for the installation from materials incorrectly sorted in recycling bins all across campus, both in dorms and nondorm buildings. As part of the project, GREEN conducted a recycling audit of five recycling bins in Kennedy Hall, finding that recyclable materials were, on average, incorrectly sorted 42% of the time.
While systemic issues like the fossil fuel industry and deforestation are large players in environmental degradation, the individual nevertheless plays a key role in recycling, both by limiting the consumption of single-use plastics and by regulating their disposal. The effects of plastic refusal and recycling are not insignificant.
The efficacy of recycling plastic relies heavily on the conscientiousness of the consumer, however. Recyclable materials thrown in the trash are sent to a landfill, and trash thrown in recycling bins renders otherwise-recyclable materials unfit for recycling. In either case, the result is the same: Plastics persist in landfills or oceans for up to 1,000 years, and more resources and energy are pumped into creating new products from raw materials.
Unless properly disposed of, plastics have the potential to accumulate in patches of marine debris, or “garbage patches,” contributing to the deaths of 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year. With the growing issues of plastic pollution in our oceans and microplastic contamination of food and water sources, recycling is of critical importance in curbing the impact of single-use plastics.
In the past, Georgetown students have been vocal about their displeasure with the university’s recycling policies, calling for increased transparency and a new recycling program manager. It is clear, though, that without student-led commitment to actively and correctly recycling plastic waste, these programs cannot thrive or expand.
To demonstrate their investment in Georgetown’s commitment to recycling, students need to take action. Students should first strive to reduce their overall consumption of single-use plastics, supporting a cultural shift to sustainable lifestyles. Small steps like carrying a reusable water bottle or cup, carrying a reusable utensil set to replace plastic cutlery, and trading plastic straws for reusable metal or glass versions or forgoing straws entirely can all cut down on the plastic waste students produce every day on campus.
When they do elect to use recyclable materials, students should take care to empty and clean materials and sort them appropriately into the labeled single-stream recycling bins provided in Georgetown facilities. Doing so will reduce contamination, maximize the collection of recyclable goods and minimize the impact single-use plastics have on our environment. These are simple, easily integrated lifestyle changes that can have a dramatic influence on reducing the waste output of a major institution like Georgetown. Students have an obligation to make these changes and take responsibility for their plastic waste production out of respect for the health of the environment.
Georgetown has provided the infrastructure. Now, it is students’ responsibility to use this infrastructure to take control of sustainability at the individual level and support the strides Georgetown has already made to ensure sustainability through recycling.
Emily Mazur is a sophomore in the College.