A Renewable State of Mind

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Transforming waste into reuable materials at the Michigan State Recycling Center 50,085 students, 5,100 faculty and 6,500 support staff make up the Michigan State community. Aside from being Spartans, we share one other common factor — the emission of daily, individualized material waste. Yet just a few hundred yards from the intersection of Farm Lane and Service Rd., the Michigan State Recycling Center and Surplus Store forms a path of change for the community and beyond. Fittingly located at 468 Green Way, the facility partakes in an eco-friendly chain effect; one small detail at the facility has the potential to lead from one environmentally sustainable impact to the next. Built in 2009, the Michigan State Recycling Center and Surplus Store is LEED Gold Certified — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — which is the second highest level available for green-certified buildings in the United States. Living up to its name and built on the concept of renewal, the MSU Recycling Center emanates sustainability. It’s all in the details, from the recycled carpet in the building to the low VOC (volatile organic compound) paint on the walls to the water cisterns that gather close to 70,000 gallons of water per year. Even the texture of the parking lot was designed with an environmentally conscious mind. Built with porous asphalt, the lot allows rainwater to percolate down to the soil beneath, bringing oil remnants left by cars with it. From there, microorganisms and bacteria decompose the oil so that by the time it gets down to the water table, it’s filtered, clean and natural. Along with the parking lot, an extra four rain gardens surround the building to help the movement of natural water. Yet, all of this is just a small fragment of the larger picture the MSU Recycling Center paints to enhance sustainability. Recycling Center Coordinator, Dave Smith has worked at the facility for more than two years promoting the importance of renewal and community engagement. “We kind of have this philosophy we call our highest and best use philosophy,” Smith says. “And that’s not necessarily monetary wise, but sometimes it is. It’s always some sort of reuse, or it’s really just trying to reduce waste in the first place.” And reducing waste is what the facility does best. Every newspaper, tattered study guide and paper coffee cup that we recycle adds up to help landfill prevention. The facility had a diversion rate of more than 57 percent in 2014, meaning 57 percent of material waste was prevented from ending up in landfills. That’s 19 million pounds of recycled material that would have otherwise emitted harmful toxins or greenhouse gases if transferred to a landfill. That’s right, 19 million. You’re probably familiar with the green recycling bins placed throughout every dorm and building on campus. Every time you drop your old papers or used cups into these bins, you’re doing your part to help the environment and further the mission of the MSU Recycling Center. Those items, along with the material left at drop-off sites by an estimated 100 cars per hour, will end up right in the Material Recovery Facility (MRF). In the MRF, all recycled materials are gathered, dispersed and bundled into approximately 1,400-pound bales of cardboard, paper or other items of a similar type. The MRF averages about 21 bales, or 29,000 pounds of product per day, Monday through Friday. If materials from the drop-off site — such as electronics or office furniture — are in good shape, they will pass through inspection and may end up at the attached Surplus Supply Store to be sold online or to the public. Along with these items, about 10,000 pounds of books come in per week between the drop-off sites or outside places. With renewability in mind, each book’s condition is individually inspected, and based on that assessment, a book is then reused, sold, donated or sent to the MRF. “We would probably make the most money by simply chopping the bindings off of that and selling the high quality paper that’s in the middle,” Smith says. “But we don’t do that simply because we don’t think that’s the right thing to do.” Instead, sticking to its philosophy, the facility tries to extract value through reuse, selling the books through Amazon, the facility’s own website or the Surplus Store, though sometimes they simply donate to schools in need. “Sometimes the highest and best use really does mean extra monetary value, but that’s not our driving force,” Smith says. “It’s really just trying to get that product reuse again.” With all of these recycled items, fills at the drop-off site have increased rapidly in the past couple of years. Hours have been extended beyond Monday through Friday so that pick-up services are available on Sunday as well. This is good news for both the output of recycled material and the output of labor. While the Recycling Center is helping to uphold a sustainable environment, it’s also assisting in the creation of jobs for both students and community members alike. The facility provides hands-on opportunities for students at MSU to get up close and personal with the recycling process, so the proximity to campus is just another added benefit. “The best opportunity for us is that we can engage students in the labor of it, in learning and in research,” Smith says. “There are a lot of other universities across the nation that could hire private [recycling companies] to come in to provide those services that may or may not have the opportunities that we do, so we’re lucky in that respect.” From student engagement and the philosophy of renewal and reuse, to the walls inside that help make the process happen, the MSU Recycling Center can teach us all to be a little greener, even in the smallest ways.

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