Written By: Kara Eckert
Published: May 14, 2020
Making Orange & Maroon Green:
My sustainability journey at SU
I’m not sure if I’ll have kids in the future but I’ve already been caring for “my baby” for more than 8 years now- My Terracycle “baby” that is! Terracycle is what has propelled me into a life of sustainability, is what has ignited a passion within me to educate myself and others on living a life more in tune with the natural world. As a senior who is soon to leave SU, I’m not sure what is in store for me and this special program in the future. As sad as that is, I am overjoyed at how SU has grown more sustainable over my four years here and has adopted the Terracycle program as an integral part of the waste management system on campus. It is such an amazing feeling that something that started as just a “homegrown” effort has turned into an institutional change and that it has gained many passionate supporters on campus.
Sorted Terracycle items
Terracycle is a New Jersey based company and since 2001 has committed itself to Eliminating the Idea of Waste® by recycling unusual items such as chip bags and toothbrushes. Currently, 202 million people in 21 countries around the world are participating in this special recycling initiative. Terracycle works through many different avenues including recycling industrial waste, offering free recycling programs (funded by companies like Colgate), selling Zero Waste Boxes (for unsponsored recycling), and creating a program called Loop which offers various goods in refillable, reusable packaging. By recycling through the free Terracycle programs you can earn money that can then be donated to charity - which is exactly what I’ve done.
My involvement with Terracycle began in 6th grade when my student teacher taught us about pollution and recycling and offered us an opportunity to help reduce waste at our school. A few of my friends and I excitedly volunteered to do our part, and we were soon given the incredibly disgusting task of collecting bottle caps from our lunch milk bottles. We created a collection bucket for the caps but, since many middle school students could care less and didn’t deposit their caps, we ended up digging through the recycling bin full of molding, bloated milk bottles full of sour, gag-inducing milk. With our gloves on and breathing through our mouths to limit the urge to puke, we “happily” gathered the caps and rinsed them in a back portion of the school cafeteria during recess. As gross as the process was, I had a supportive team to work with and it gave me a purpose. Seeing the huge boxes full of bottle caps, that would be Terracycled instead of being thrown away, made my 6th-grade-self feel so good!
School continued, life changed with the seasons, and Terracycle became a thing of the past while I explored different hobbies and activities. Then in high school, I learned about the mandatory senior project that all high schoolers had to complete. It didn’t take me too long to decide that, like usual, I wanted to make things harder on myself, and I began an extended senior project, a 4 year senior project, that just so happened to be Terracycle. The program had really intrigued me in the past, and after a few years off, I was ready to dive back into recycling unusual waste. Terracycling in high school was definitely challenging and in all honesty was not super successful but it taught me a few things: (1) You have to communicate to the head of the department AND its workers (just because the head janitor knows about the program doesn’t mean the other janitors cleaning the building know about Terracycle), (2) many people won’t take the time to read so you have to make signs colorful, bold and simple with images instead of words, and (3) many people don’t care all that much (which is a continual challenge in any sustainability initiative). During that time, I really became passionate about Terracycle, and I knew that moving forward, I wanted to try to implement the program in college.
The 4 year high school "senior" project
When I first came to SU, I reached out to many different leaders and managers on campus to make sure that I could start a very basic recycling program. Chris Bailey, head of facilities, has been my ally from the very beginning, and I am so grateful for his support! As I am not a graphic designer and was working on my own budget, my initial posters and collection boxes were very homemade and frugal, but it was the best I could do at the time. I loosely partnered with the sustainability club at the time (SAVE) to decorate the cardboard collection boxes, but my initial attempts to get help with the collection and sorting of recyclables was futile. So, I took charge and did it alone. The program started off rather slowly, which I had anticipated, but eventually the recycling flow started to pick up, and I noticed more community interest in Terracycle. In my second year, I made the posters more eye-catching and partnered with the cafeteria to start collecting cereal bags. I also did Terracycle promotions in lower Deg to educate the greater SU community about the program. But everything was still wishy washy – Terracycle had no future after I would leave SU and that weighed on me greatly.
The many phases of Terracycle boxes. SU box phase 1, on the left. SU box phase 2, on the right
Then in the fall of my junior year, everything changed – Derek Martin became our first SU Sustainability Coordinator, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The newly created Office of Sustainability was going to take Terracycle under its wing and carry it forward as a permanent fixture to the multi-faceted recycling system at the university – Huzzah! After my semester abroad in the spring of my junior year, I returned to campus in the fall for my final year as the Student Coordinator for the Terracycle Recycling Program. While I was gone, Derek and another student had upgraded the collection boxes and posters and they looked amazing (ah, the beauty of funding!). He had also recruited a small group of students to help with the collection and sorting of recyclables – I finally had a support system! The weekly Terracycle sorting meetings throughout my senior year have been some of the most uplifting times of my college career.
Terracycle sorting in Weber Chapel Dec. 2019
Having a community of passionate students around me who cared about “my baby” just as much as I did really energized me, and I would walk away from those weekly meetings feeling so excited to peruse new avenues within recycling/upcycling. Because of the success of the program, two Terracyclers and I were able to present our SU Terracycle program at the 2020 Green Allies Conference where we announced that we had recycled over 36,000 items and raised about $300 for charity. What an amazing accomplishment!
GreenAllies 2020 Terracycle Presentation Team
Now, even through this pandemic, Terracycle is still with me and keeps me going. Yesterday, I did a sorting session of all the recycling that my mom had collected for me over the spring semester, and I had a surprise helper, my dad! Even my neighbor dropped off the recycling she had collected for me. While the flow is significantly lower and I can’t be with my Terracycle “crew” at SU, knowing that people still care about reducing waste warms my heart in these stressful times. I hope that you all are doing well and that you can use sustainability as a motivating and positive force to keep you going through the thick and thin.