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The “Triple Bottom Line” of Recycling

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The University of Utah aims to divert almost 50 percent of its current, overall waste – as stated by the 2010 Climate Action Plan – a pretty substantial goal (Currently the U recycles about 27 percent of its solid waste stream).

This is the second part of a three-part series on recycling and waste reduction efforts at the University of Utah.

In 2007 the University of Utah committed $300,000 of one-time implementation funding to purchase more recycling bins, new equipment, and build a small recycling center.  Yet since then, even after the University accounts for returned revenues for recycling paper and other materials, recycling officials say they still spend somewhere around $40,000 ~ $60,000 each year keeping the program running.  If the University was merely a profit-hungry business then, economically, the recycling program is not sustainable.

From this strictly economic vantage some business and finance majors might be shaking their heads.  Even when the economy was good, the recycling business barely yielded financial returns.  But when your focus of the local waste problem pulls back – offering a wider, global outlook – other costs become visible.

Albatross on Midway Atoll, Pacific Ocean. Photo by Chris Jordan.

You might see the massive plastic gyres choking ocean marine life, and the dead albatross on Midway Atoll. (see more of Chris Jordan’s photos here)

You might see the piled mine tailings, as companies dig out more mineral ore for new buildings, new cell phones, and new computers.

You might see forests vanishing because we need more paper.

You might see the plastic bags stuck in the trees.

You might see the processed petroleum fused with other chemicals to make even more plastic bottles, plastic wrappers, plastic jugs, and plastic forks.

And on a windy day, you might smell the rank stenches of the Wasatch Front landfills, where much of our trash goes to rot, albeit… very slowly.  But you won’t see the methane – the greenhouse gas 21-times worse than CO2 – rising from the dump (although luckily Salt Lake City now tries to capture much of it for energy).

Now the chemistry, biology, and environmental studies majors might be nodding their heads.  These are not just our trash problems.  These are really symptoms of consumerism culture (although with that issue, I risk a digression).  The point is there’s more to the U’s waste reduction practices than simple economic dollar figures.

What is the “Triple Bottom Line?”

Accounting for relevant environmental and social impacts, as well as economic impacts, has become the University’s new “triple bottom line” approach with operational, administrative, and educational decision-making, as established by the University’s 2010 Energy and Environmental Stewardship Initiative.

As a U of U student, I am glad our university thinks reducing, reusing, and recycling waste is important, even if it means spending more money.  (Although, I think waste is a human-constructed notion that we need to get past. There is no “waste” in nature – everything inevitably becomes something new again).  Yet for our purposes, investing in programs to reduce overall consumption and trash disposal helps all of us to be more accountable to those often-unseen social and environmental costs.

Determining this triple bottom line, perhaps, begins with scrutinizing what, and how much, we collectively consume and as a University.

Assessing the environmental costs means acknowledging that the planet’s natural resources – the paper we collect, the clean air we breath, the food we purchase and eat, and the packaging it’s wrapped in – all come from natural resources that could be diminished if we’re not careful.  Allowing the Earth’s resources to diminish because of overconsumption amounts to a fundamental market failure.

Assessing the social costs can be equally complex.  For example, if the University were to contract with a company that creates a “negative social value,” by impoverishing the health or well-being of people who indirectly relate to the University, the University is partially accountable.  This hypothetical company that supplies pens to the University’s bookstore might cheaply produce pens faraway in Asia by coercing children to make those pens – something that could be very inexpensive and “economical” for that company, and the U.  Yet purchasing from that unethical business means that we all carry some responsibility for those unseen – and morally questionable – social costs.

However, this is not to say that an enterprise that creates environmental and social benefits but loses money is sustainable, because, eventually without subsidy, it will lack the funding to keep operating.  Back to recycling, the University’s triple bottom line, therefore, is not intended as a system to exclude revenue incentive from operations.  It exists to balance the revenue incentive with the costs of production decisions that are often externalized: the social and environmental costs.

Right now the University of Utah earns a pittance from recycling paper, cardboard, and other materials.  But how might the U earn more money back through recycling?

Running the Numbers

Currently the University of Utah spends approximately $104,222 annually to operate its recycling program, according to Recycling Program Coordinator Josh James.  James has two part-time employees who work with him.

Since the Great Recession began, the U now earns roughly $18,634 a year from its recycling – which mostly comes from used paper.  Before the economic decline the U earned $190 per ton for its white Office Pack paper from its contracted recycling company, International Paper Inc.  It now gets only $60 per ton.  Mixed Paper (newspapers, etc.) was $100, but dropped to $60 per ton.  Cardboard was $120, but dropped to $15 per ton.

Partially, the value of paper is determined by the recycling market.  International Paper Inc., collects, consumes, and markets the millions of tons of paper it collects all over the U.S.   But the quality of the paper – its contamination levels, and the truck collection costs also factor into the prices the company offers the U.  A school or business that can sell a better recycling “product” can make more money.

The University of Colorado at Boulder exemplifies how a university can yield higher recycling returns if it invests in its recycling program.  CU-Boulder is a useful example to compare with the University of Utah since their total student enrollment roughly equals Utah’s.

In 1992 CU-Boulder purchased a loan of $470,000 to construct an on-campus “Intermediate Processing Facility” to increase the value of its recyclable materials.  According to CU-Boulder’s website they process 10,000 lbs of materials per day.  By carefully tracking the savings from diverting the trash the school paid off the loan in seven years.  CU-Boulder’s Recycling Coordinator Dan Burrow says their sorting facility gives them higher revenues from its materials.

“Ultimately we’re sending a higher grade material to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) with all of the paper and stuff sorted out by us.  The MRF then can turn around and sell it for greater prices to the markets. It’s mutually beneficial.”

CU currently funds a recycling program of two full-time and two part-time staff with a yearly operating budget of $289,000 plus funds for other expenses.  Unlike Utah, where custodians help with gathering recyclables and regular trash, Colorado has its own separate recycling crew that goes building-to-building collecting desk-side bins and containers once a week.  Plus CU-Boulder students contribute $3.00 in fees each semester to support the recycling.  The program also provides work-study jobs for 20 to 25 students per semester who help process and sort materials in the campus sorting facility.

Diligent CU sends its processed mixed paper to the local MRF for almost $50 a ton, and its white ledger paper for $150/ton.  CU’s recycling revenues are around $50,000 per year (they claim it was twice as much before the economy soured).

Even though its recycling program isn’t recovering all of its financial costs right now, Burrow says, the community interactions and camaraderie involved creates social earnings for their school.

“We’re fortunate to have lots of passionate students who come to CU for our sustainability efforts here.  Recycling is one way they can get hands-on involvement.”

I say we are equally passionate about recycling and reducing waste here at the U.   And as the notions of the triple bottom line become more engrained with our campus culture, the University will also realize the numerous social, environmental, and financial benefits that reduced consumption, recycling, and composting will bring… if only we give it more deserved attention.