Recycling 101: Moving the needle on campus waste with digital

Campus recycling programs across North America are experiencing a resurgence.

To meet new waste challenges presented by the pandemic, forward-looking colleges and universities are making important program pivots and relying on digital technologies to help them communicate with students about sustainability initiatives.

The University of Michigan is a leader in terms of waste and diversion efforts, having placed first in the 2022 Campus Race to Zero Waste, a competition sponsored by the National Wildlife Fund and formerly known as RecycleMania.

The Ann Arbor campus community collected more than 748,400 pounds of recyclables and 349,600 pounds of compost during the eight weeks of competition in February and March. Diverting this waste from the landfill avoided 1,225 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to taking 260 cars off the road for one year.

To help people understand and engage in campus recycling at a national, award-winning level, the Office of Campus Sustainability leverages digital communication tools, powered by ReCollect.

“Staff and students … are actively engaged in waste-reduction and zero-waste efforts throughout the year and are great sustainability partners,” said Alison Richardson, Program Manager.

Campus recycling and the big picture
Key takeaways

  • Household recycling rates remain flat
  • To make a bigger impact, recycling needs to take place everywhere, not just at home — campuses included
  • GenZ and beyond desire and expect sustainability from institutions, including schools

Over the last 30 years, curbside recycling programs have proliferated across North America, initially lifting overall diversion rates and then holding them steady. At the same time, generations have grown up with recycling at home and basic environmental stewardship as the norm.

But recycling rates have remained relatively flat since the late-1990s, according to EPA data, so boosting diversion on the broader scale now requires a smart combination of behavior change strategies coupled with technology to encourage more and better recycling, as well as more opportunities to recycle away from home. According to data from Nielsen and Pew Research Center, sustainability and technology not only appeal to digital natives raised on recycling and smartphones: They’re largely built into their cultural DNA.

These factors help answer why Keep America Beautiful has focused in the last decade on recycling programs for public spaces and workplaces, and organizations like the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability Initiatives in Higher Education (AASHE, dating back to 2001) and the College and University Recycling Coalition (CURC, formally organized in 2009) are helping to advance on-campus diversion programs.

Campus recycling: Necessary — and changing
Key takeaways

  • Students and colleges generate a lot of waste, and most of it is recyclable
  • GenZ and beyond expect on-campus recycling and favor schools that care about sustainability
  • The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges for campus recycling programs, highlighting the importance of digital strategies to connect with students about waste diversion

The average college student generates about 640 pounds of solid waste a year, including 320 pounds of paper and 500 disposable cups, according to multiple sources. On an average campus of 6,500 students, that’s over 2,000 tons of waste a year — about 80 percent of which is believed to be recyclable.

College students expect schools to provide opportunities to recycle this material. Forward-looking institutions can meet those expectations while positively impacting the environment — and enhancing their brand — by implementing recycling programs and, importantly, communicating effectively about them. Studies have shown that Gen Z prefers sustainable brands and places more value on their offerings, paying more for them.

Though campus recycling isn’t new, more schools are investing in waste reduction even as streams change and campuses stretch to include new physical and online learning environments. Like everything else, campus recycling has been impacted by COVID-19: When stay-at-home orders closed schools in 2020, many continued their efforts to advance waste minimization and zero waste efforts with digital education and awareness campaigns, according to the National Wildlife Fund.

When doors opened again, waste-diversion efforts met with other pandemic changes. Disposable masks became problematic in terms of litter and waste, and new safety protocols required fresh ways of thinking about existing sustainability initiatives. In 2021 Towson University (Maryland) launched a “Use This, Not That” campaign, encouraging the use of fabric face coverings instead of disposable ones, and Lehigh University (Pennsylvania) relaunched its eco-tainers program by providing every student with two reusable clamshell food containers for use in dining halls.

Challenges and solutions for campus diversion
Key takeaways:

  • Recycling confusion on campus leads to contamination and can undermine program goals
  • Frequent, clear communication and easy-to-access information about recycling are key to success
  • Digital tools for recycling education and engagement meet student needs while supporting key outcomes for schools


The problems and challenges universities face when it comes to waste and recycling are unique, and many schools are already using digital tools for education and engagement to successfully solve them.

1| Transience. Students move around and often have to follow different rules for “what goes where” when they’re at home and school.

Solution: Provide information at the place and time of disposal — via technology.

Studies have shown the time of disposal is the critical moment when people ask themselves where something goes. While strategic prompts and recycling receptacle design can help people decide what to do, even better is an all-inclusive digital resource available 24/7/365 that allows an individual to do a quick search for where to put their greasy pizza box.

On campuses across the US, including University of Michigan and Harvard University, students use their smartphones to access locally-branded search engines (powered by the Waste Wizard from ReCollect), to look up items and instantly learn how to dispose of them properly. In Cambridge the tool is called “Get Rid of It Right.” In Ann Arbor, the school branded it “Where to Throw.”

A simple search is much easier for students to use than long lists about what’s recyclable, and making it easy is an important part of any successful recycling program.

“We had amassed this giant list of materials, but we didn’t have any easy way for people to search it,” said Richardson from University of Michigan. “And then we saw that some other folks, including Michigan State, were using ReCollect’s Waste Wizard. We chatted with them, and it seemed like exactly what we were looking for.”

2| Scale. In places where the campus population is large relative to the community, the school may have its own rules for waste and recycling that differ from those of the surrounding city. This can create layered confusion for students who live or work off-campus, resulting in wishcycling and contamination. In turn, improper recycling threatens the health of recycling programs, which rely on clean materials to thrive.

Solution: Provide easy-to-access programmatic information about what goes where — in conjunction with broader recycling education to help students understand why disposal rules differ depending on where they are — and nip contamination in the bud.

The Waste Wizard by ReCollect provides more than just campus-specific disposal information. When a student looks up how to dispose of a glass bottle, for example, customized results also give context around glass recycling. That way students understand why glass might be recycled at school but not at  home or work.

When students have instant access to information about what goes where, in addition to why, it helps them build positive disposal habits and build trust in recycling programs, discussed further below.

3| Lack of trust. In some cases, students hesitate to engage in recycling because they doubt that materials actually get recycled. 

Solution: Sustainability officers tell us that schools must be transparent and accountable to build the trust required for engagement. With negative media attention focused on recycling since China implemented its National Sword program in 2017, some students enter college with an unclear picture of the true value of their recycling efforts.

Schools can help build trust by communicating openly and frequently about recycling in students’ first languages, a task made easier with digital tools for recycling education, including mobile apps and messaging with built-in translation features.

Digital also allows for clear communication at scale, so when students have questions, they don’t stand a chance of going unanswered — a real risk when trust is at stake.

At the University of Michigan, digital tools “streamlined the process so that folks don’t have to send individual emails, and we don’t have to field all of the different emails for questions that people can find the answers to easily themselves,” said Richardson.

4| Expectations. Cultural beliefs and attitudes about recycling will differ across diverse student populations. Meeting varied expectations can be tricky.

Solution: Each student comes to campus with an understanding of recycling that’s been shaped by their lived experiences. Students hailing from urban centers with advanced waste management practices will have different expectations than those from rural backgrounds where recycling programs are more difficult to deliver.

Rather than rely on the knowledge that students bring with them, technology helps campus communities connect the dots between place and proper disposal practices. Plus, information gathered on the administrative side of digital tools for recycling communication and education can help program managers better understand what information students are searching for, providing valuable insights into topics to educate about in the future.

“I am a little bit skeptical about how everything needs to be a new technology, a new widget, a new whatever. But if you have a tool that can really save you time and energy? And with quantifiable metrics that have been impacted by the tool? In my mind, it’s a no-brainer,” said Mike Orr, Recycling Director for the City of Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard University.

The future of campus recycling

With environmental concerns increasingly coming to the fore as GenZ matriculates into higher education, colleges and universities will continue to set aggressive sustainability targets. These targets will help them meet student expectations, advance their environmental mission, and demonstrate their commitment to the planet through designations from trusted entities, such as the STARS rating from AASHE.

When it comes to recycling specifically, schools that leverage modern technology to clearly communicate about how and why to engage in waste diversion are likely to take the lead in sustainable outcomes as well as student recruitment and retention.

More resources

The organizations and articles listed here provide support, suggestions, and information for colleges and universities looking to start, revamp, and improve campus diversion programs.


Learn more. Ready to take your campus recycling and diversion efforts from good to great? That’s what we do! Let’s talk.


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