waste, waste not

we just switched to a “no can” policy

in practise, what this means is that rubbish bins in our offices are no longer emptied (though they are still there, and I helpfully pointed out that most of the bins had not been emptied that one last time when we switched this month – they were emptied this morning…)

instead we have 8 (I counted) sorting bins in the hallways, most of which are for recycling, of course
this is a good thing, and the goal is to get to zero waste (not possible, too much stuff is wrapped in that unrecyclable soft plastic that ends up in landfills)

so now I pile garbage on the corner of my desk and once or twice a day grab it as I go out and drop it off in the sorting bins: wrap the banana peel in the old paper napkin and put in the compost bin; throw the junk mail into the office paper bin; the student paper in the newsprint bin; stare forlornly at the bent staple extracted from the lone precious stapler and decide that it is landfill despite the small bloodstain, though I suppose it ought to be biohazard…

anyway, in astronomical units it takes about 10 seconds – ie not 1 second, and most definitely not 100 seconds, and that is doing the whole thing en passant

every day (yes, you can see where I am going with this)

for 200 work days

That is 2,000 second per year spent on the recycling at the office – call it half hour per person per year, allowing for travel etc

there are roughly 100 people here, with mean salary of order $50k per year, averaged over student, staff, faculty and postdocs

so we are now spending about 50 man hours per year sorting recycling, with a formal opportunity cost of about $1,250 per year

that is actually not bad, I had guessed factor of few higher
of course my dart game will also go down sharply, as I no longer have incentive to fling things into the bin in my office, which is also a cost

averaged over all departments and buildings, I’m guessing a cross-campus implementation of this recycling policy would cost order $ half million in opportunity cost of time

again, not bad, probably small enough to be absorbed on the margin, soaking up what was dead time anyway

ok, this is a lot less curmudgeonly than I thought it’d be



  1. #1 Ben
    April 5, 2012

    The way I think about recycling – true of home recycling also – is that it’s far more efficient for us to sort the stuff correctly at the moment we put it into the [separate] bins than for a downstream human or mechanical process to take unsorted or incorrectly sorted stuff from a bin and sort it later.

  2. #2 Steinn Sigurdsson
    April 5, 2012

    Not obvious – we don’t get economies of scale sorting at the beginning, and at least some recyclables can be mechanically separated, which ought to scale.

    Other issue is comparative advantage – academics are unskilled at sorting, and error prone (I saw three mis-sorted recyclables this afternoon in the bins, and I resorted them).
    Labour cost is not really flat.

    Interesting problem.

  3. #3 Steinn Sigurdsson
    April 5, 2012

    Oh, and that is not including the whole displaced cost/benefit thing – the proximate benefit of the recycling sort is to the institution, which has lower disposal costs; but the cost is distributed to the employees who effectively donate their time to do it – not betting the benefit will trickle back to the employees in general.

  4. #4 Chad Bender
    April 6, 2012

    I’d still like to know what we’re supposed to do with the plastic clamshell containers from the large, university dining facility across the street (they are #6 plastic). The burrow doesn’t recycle them (via curb side pickup), and the university signage for the recycling bins doesn’t specifically address them. Assuming they can be put in the standard plastic bin, if there is food waste stuck to them are we supposed to be wash it off first? And if we don’t, does it contaminate the entire bin, causing the recycling contractor to chuck the whole batch into the landfill? What is the trade off between wash water usage vs landfill space? Not to come off as anti-recycling, I’m just skeptical about the end cost and practicality of processing some of the more “difficult” materials

  5. #5 Steinn Sigurdsson
    April 6, 2012

    yeah, they ought to move to the partially recycled coated cardboard containers – those biodegrade… the plastics bin can’t be right, incompatible mix of unlinked and linked polymers – maybe they burn it?

  6. #6 Doktor Skepto
    April 7, 2012

    In addition to what has been said above, I see another dimension to this green change. A service that we used to have (trash collection from our offices) is now taken away by the university and the job is passed on to the occupants of the offices. Meanwhile, the overhead rate charged on our grants has remained the same. This is yet another step in the gradual but systematic move towards a more corporate culture at universities. I am sure you can all see other implications so, I need not say more…

  7. #7 mike shupp
    April 8, 2012

    But there are people who enjoy sorting things and setting right other peoples’ mistakes. You shouldn’t feel a need to correct your colleague’s sorting errors (unless it is some deep-seated psychological thing of course, which is perfectly okay). Just leave the lids of the bins up and within hours a secretary or student receptionist will come by to sneer and let you know that “someone on the staff” had taken care of “a problem you professors never noticed.” Feel free to forget; it’ll be mentioned to you again around Christmas time.

  8. #8 Steinn Sigurdsson
    April 9, 2012

    People who enjoy setting right other peoples’ mistakes: like professors?

    I spent enough time in Germany to know just how serious an offence against nature it is to mis-sort recyclables!

    If only we had the budget for student receptionists…

  9. #9 Eli Rabett
    April 14, 2012

    You may have noticed the same thing with typists and journals. It’s a feature

  10. #10 Jason Curtis
    April 20, 2012

    This new policy is essential to coerce our department to recycle and compost. I cannot understand why anyone would throw away a pizza box in a can 8 feet from their desk, when there is a compost bin just another 25 feet down the hall. But this has been the practice.

    Besides the environmental and financial benefits (e.g. the landfill is 80 miles away, while the compost is maybe 4), hopefully this policy will encourage us to stand up, stretch and walk around more regularly. I know I can get in the zone and sit at my computer for hours, and my back hates me for it (so we could also view this as a form of preventative healthcare).

    I’ve also heard of San Francisco working to eliminate waste (non-recyclable/compostable) by 2020: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNbp4EI-ZHs
    (although I didn’t see those compost bins from the video anywhere in the city last week).

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.