you ever wondered what happens to your recycling after you drop it in one of
our on-campus recycling bins or drop-off facility bins? While you may cease to
think about it after you walk or drive away, we spend a lot of time thinking
about recyclable materials. We have employees who sort through your
When I walk into the Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, as we like to refer to it, I am immediately struck by the smell of food that has clearly been sitting out a few days too long. To say that working the sort-line in the MRF is always pleasant would be an exaggeration. People do not always properly empty food containers which lead to days-old food waste being left in the MRF before it gets sorted. Mary doesn’t seem bothered in the least, however, and I realize it is because she is used to it. She doesn’t even notice it. After talking to Mary for quite a while, I stop noticing it as well.
Mary is a Junior at Michigan State University. She is pursuing a double major, one in Environmental Studies and Sustainability and another in Sustainable Parks, Recreation, and Tourism. Mary is somewhat new to her position as a sort-line employee supervisor, joining us in August of 2018.
Mary thinks recycling is important because the world produces so many materials that, if not recycled, will remain on the earth for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, and that is not the kind of legacy that she thinks humanity should be leaving. One thing that frustrates her about the job is the lack of understanding surrounding contaminated materials. Materials on the sort-line can be contaminated in one of two ways. The first is a material mixed in with the others that should not be there like a tin can mixed in with cardboard. The second type of contamination is food contamination. This type of contamination can lead to some pretty unsavory encounters for the staff working the sort-line. Something that you recycle on Monday might not get sorted until Friday, and that means any food left in a container has time to grow mold or attract insects and rodents. Sometimes they find maggots and mice in the material they are sorting through, which is quite a shocking experience.
As I speak with Mary, I realize that she must be a very patient person. While she frequently deals with contaminated materials, she is still happy that people are recycling. She told me she’d rather people recycle than not, and if that means she must deal with some contamination in the materials, she’ll take that over the alternative. She went on to explain that “When people don’t recycle properly, you are compounding the issue.” When you don’t rinse peanut butter out of a jar, it becomes a bigger problem for her because maybe it attracts bugs or even worse, she must pick it out and put it in the trash because it is too contaminated. She encourages people to make sure that what they are recycling is truly recyclable because the process is further complicated when things that cannot be recycled are put in our recycling bins. (Here’s a link to our recycling guide)
I wanted to give Mary the opportunity to relay a message about recycling to the public, and she immediately had an answer for me. Mary told me one thing she would like her fellow recyclers to know is that there is a big difference between pulling a metal can from the sort line when they are sorting paper and having to grab a container full of days old food off the line to throw away. She is more concerned about the second type of contamination because that is a much more unpleasant experience and it is easily fixable. For the majority of things, all it requires is a quick rinse and swish with some warm water.
While her major is relatively broad, working at the MSU Recycling Center has encouraged her to consider working in the industry after graduation. Whether or not she does, it is clear from my conversation with her that sustainability and recycling matter to her, and whatever she chooses to do, she will bring that passion with her. In her free time, she enjoys going on runs, volunteering with environmental organizations in Lansing, and drinking coffee (but only from a reusable mug).