I bet you didn’t know that Southern Oregon University’s Recycle Center generates the cleanest quantity of recycling in Southern Oregon.

SOU can boast about this achievement thanks to some thoughtful and motivated SOU students about seven years ago. At that time, SOU lacked an organized recycling program, much to the dismay of the students. They wanted their university to reflect the values of the three R’s (reduce, re-use and then recycle).

The students’ resolution began to take shape in an environmental science class with the incredible Prof. Eric Ditmer for their senior capstone project. They were inspired to take action when they discovered that the 64-gallon recycle carts on campus were collecting mostly contaminated material. They wanted to create a program that supported waste prevention and recycling.

The students' first action was a “waste audit” on campus. They wanted to see what was being put in the trash and blue recycle carts. They discovered plenty of recyclables in the trash and conversely lots of garbage in the recycle. It was not a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment because these two streams do not belong together in the same way dark chocolate and peanut butter do! Landfilling resources like recyclables and contaminating recycling create avoidable waste.

The students' next move was to get grants to build a recycle center. They were successful and built a very modest space at 12-by-24 feet  that was designed specifically for the purpose of cleaning and sorting paper, cardboard, metal cans, rigid plastic (commingle) and glass separately. They realized, rightly so, that when recycle carts are unmonitored, contamination levels threaten the recyclability of the material.

The grants also covered the purchase of color-coded containers and signage/education on campus for recycling properly. Students living in the residential halls still receive special baskets for their rooms just for recycling. The students then deposit their recycling at centrally located stations on campus.

In large cities like San Francisco, recycling is collected and transported to a gigantic material recovery facility (MRF) nearby. In rural Southern Oregon we don’t have this option. MRFs are multi-million dollar facilities that use conveyor belts, optical sorters and magnets for some materials, along with human beings grabbing the contaminating materials going down the line.

Many of us would welcome the chance to conveniently recycle everywhere, but to do so requires a system (costs) to ensure a clean recycle stream. Sorting materials is largely accomplished by human labor and sophisticated machinery removing the contamination. The students created a plan to accomplish exactly that at a far lower cost. The majority of all recycling on the SOU campus ends up at its Recycle Center.

SOU custodians collect campus trash in black bags and recycling in clear bags and deliver them to the campus Recycle Center. The trash bags are compacted and transported to the landfill. The clear bags for recycling are hand-sorted by the student employees. They remove non-recyclable items, rinse soiled recyclables if needed, weigh the recycling and then fill the 10-yard bin with the pristine material. There is also a 10-yard container for flattened cardboard and 64-gallon carts for the glass jars and bottles (no lids).

In 2016 SOU recycled 34,000 pounds of mixed recycling and 7,000 pounds of glass. They also diverted 500 pounds of usable materials that went on their “Free Stuff Shelf” or was donated to Goodwill. Notebooks, books and clothes made up much of this free stuff that if it hadn’t been pre-sorted, would have contaminated recycling efforts and become trash.

The SOU Recycle Center works well with its current volume of recycle. They do a great job with limited resources.

Most recycled containers are about 20 percent contaminated at best. The beauty of SOU’s program is that last year it collected, cleaned and recycled 41,000 pounds of stellar material. If you're curious, their most common contaminant has been paper coffee cups with lids. (Note to self: No paper cups or lids in recycling.)

My hat is off to the students who observed an insufficiency and worked to create viable solutions that continue to serve their university today.

—Risa Buck has served on the Ashland Conservation Commission and in waste prevention education for more than a decade. You may reach her through betling@dailytidings.com. Find past WasteNot columns online at bit.ly/rbwastenot.