11 College Recycling Programs that Put All Others to Shame

TBC Recycling

One look at your local landfill should be more than enough to convince you recycling should be high on America’s priority list. On average, Americans recycle about 34% of our waste. This rate is twice as good as it was two decades ago, but many colleges around the country are proving that much more can be done. From giving every student a recycling bin to disposing of everything from bottles to batteries, these 11 colleges are clear leaders in the movement to reduce, reuse, and recycle on campus. Not to mention, as the move toward green resources has become more and more prevalent, we are seeing an increase in jobs with a basis in renewable energy. For example, careers in wind energy are expected to increase by approximately 40% over the next few years, as it did between the years 2004-2009. So-called "green jobs" are predicted to expand both in prevalence and variability - that is to say that increasingly more new jobs are expected to be created in this field.


American University Washington, DC

AU beat out 604 other American colleges to Grand Champion in the 2012 RecycleMania contest. It was a milestone on the school’s way to becoming 100% waste-free. It plans to get there by increasing the methods it’s already using, like composting all paper towels from restrooms on campus and all kitchen waste from three dining areas. Bottled water and food trays have also gotten the ax, cutting waste by 32%. Auto lubes are recycled, furniture is recycled or reused, and kitchen grease is recycled for electricity. It all adds up to one of the finest recycling programs in academia.


Valencia College Orlando, FL

With a decade-old recycling program, this Orlando college has quickly established itself as a model for campus sustainability. Valencia took home the RecycleMania gold for waste minimization each year from 2012-2014, a category designed to encouraged schools to lower their waste output of both trash and recyclables. After taking fourth in 2010 and second in 2011, Valencia won with an average of just 2.75 pounds of waste produced per person throughout the contest period. While Valencia does have a solid system of paper, plastic, aluminum, and electronic waste recycling, the school encourages practices like double-sided printing and using water fountains instead of plastic bottles to cut down on the need to recycle at all.


College of the Atlantic Bar Harbor, ME

COA, in Maine, is well-known as one of the greenest campuses in the nation. Its recycling program reaches “every floor of every building,” offering outlets for recycling bottles, cans, glass, printer cartridges, and paper. But where the school really shines is in food recycling: every last scrap of food waste is composted, along with the napkins and disposable flatware. Actually, not every scrap is recycled; in the Sustainable Business Hatchery on campus, some of the non-recyclable food waste can be turned into a renewable energy source.


University of California, Davis Davis, CA

Another school with a zero waste goal by the end of this decade, UC Davis has been concerned with recycling since 1975, when it opened the Bargain Barn (now known as Aggie Surplus), a hub for repurposing items instead of trashing them, or recycling them. Each year, Aggie Surplus sells 8,000 items and recycles 120 tons of CDs, tapes, printers, PDAs, and more. In the area of food recycling, 98% of all UCD’s food waste was being composted as of 2009. Students even collect this food waste in their rooms through a project called the Bucket Program. The school also targets move-in and move-out days, recycling 10,000 pounds of cardboard during move-in in Fall 2009. And in 2007, the school opened the country’s first zero-waste athletic stadium.


Kalamazoo College Kalamazoo, MI

“K-College” is a perennial contender in RecycleMania, winning first in two categories in 2008 and took first in the bottles and cans category in 2012. The heart of recycling at the Michigan school is the “Bat Cave,” where student volunteers answer questions and run the Rep Room, or Resource Exchange Program. The program houses hundreds of free donated goods like textbooks, mirrors, Christmas lights, pencils and pens, lamps, and more that can still be considered treasure by the right beholder. The recycling department oversees the export of about a ton of food waste a week to a local pig farm, as well as the recycling of calculators, batteries, electric motors, and all other e-waste.


Chatham University Pittsburgh, PA

This Pittsburgh school has an impressive recycling program that includes composting both pre- and post-consumer materials and a stormwater management system for irrigating gardens on campus. Cooking oil is recycled into biofuel, and used laptops and cellphones are donated to people in need. But it’s what Chatham doesn’t do that is most groundbreaking. For one, it refuses to sell bottled water on campus. Incoming students are given reusable bottles that can be refilled at filtered water stations around campus. The school has also done away with trays in the dining hall to cut down on food waste.


Harvard University Cambridge, MA

The switch to “SingleStream” recycling, where items do not have to be separated, has this bastion of academia on track to improve its already strong record of recycling. In 2011, the university scored a 52% diversion rate (the highest in the Ivy League) with nearly 8,400 tons of materials recycled. The school saves nearly 25,000 gallons of water each year by simply saving rainwater. Harvard also has joined the compost movement, keeping 103 tons of food waste out of landfills in 2011, and is also one of the few schools to offer Styrofoam recycling to every lab on campus.


Purdue University West Lafayette, IN

Two hundred recycling centers on campus are inching Purdue closer to its goal of 65% recycling of its solid waste. From 2009-2010, the Indiana school recycled nearly 1,000 tons of the usual suspects (paper, plastic, and aluminum), but added 300 tons of steel and 426 tons of cooking oil and grease. In 2012, the university also won RecycleMania’s Pilot Electronics competition, recycling nearly 70,000 pounds of e-waste in just eight weeks. In 2017, Purdue placed highly in several RecycleMania categories and was named the winner of the Waste Minimization category for the 2017 RecycleMania Case Study Competition. Like many on this list, Purdue also composts animal waste and brush and recently switched to twice-a-week recycling pickup/twice-a-week trash pickup in order to “think recycle first, trash second.”


Brown University Providence, RI

As recycling in Rhode Island is mandatory, it’s no wonder this Ivy is conscientious about its trash. Its 73% waste diversion rate has helped keep tons of compact fluorescent light bulbs, printer cartridges, “techno trash,” food, and clothing out of area dumps. The school is also distinguished for having an excellent move-out day recycling program for a time notorious for left-behind trash. The student-run EcoReps has partnered with the administration for four years to collect clothes, furniture, and other items from outgoing students for donation. Last year’s donation alone weighed almost 17 tons that would otherwise have been needlessly trashed.


Georgia Institute of Technology Atlanta, GA

Georgia Tech doesn’t pass up many opportunities to recycle. Between 2008-2016, the school has recycled 198 tons of waste at football games through its Game Day Recycling program. Fans and tailgaters are given blue plastic bags for collecting recycling, and during the game “green” fans are broadcast on the big screen. Georgia Tech deals with day-to-day recycling by putting a recycling bin in every office, dorm room, suite, and apartment on campus for disposal at any of 10 recycling sites. And in May, the school used yet another move-out day to collect another 24,460 pounds of recyclables and 503 pounds of donations for a local food bank.


University of Connecticut Storrs, CT

The University of Connecticut offers many green initiatives which as part of its Office of Environmental Policy. Among the most effective programs include a composting program, Green Game Days, E-Waste and Ink Cartridge Recycling, and a Give and Go Move Out Campaign that occurs on move out day at the end of each school year. In 2012, UConn's Give and Go Move Out campaign collected 10,767 pounds of donations to be given to over 20 local charities that will pass the items on to people in need.