Students and Faculty learn about Northeastern Recycling Practices

Students are used to lugging their recycling and waste to the bottom floor of their building to be recycled. They throw it in a giant bin and walk away, which is when Sue Higgins’ Materials and Recycling team takes charge. Sue Higgins, Associate Director for Materials and Recycling at Northeastern, who has worked at northeastern for three years, leads a small team in collecting all the waste and recycling on campus.  

At a recent Zoom webinar hosted by the D’Amore-McKim school of business, she met with other recycling gurus and discussed the future of Northeastern’s recycling programs.  

In 2022, Northeastern University’s Boston campus generated over 4,500 tons of waste. About 21% of that was recycled, approximately 18% was compost from food waste, and roughly 9% was compost from landscaping. In 2022, 48% of recycling was diverted from disposal, which is up 7% from 2019. Higgins admits that they have “a lot of room for improvement,” but she is ultimately “very pleased we are going in the right direction.”  

Most of the recycling material is cardboard, totaling over 400 tons in 2022.  

The Materials and Recycling team works seven days a week and also collaborates with campus partners including transportation, facilities, dining services and more. Northeastern also collaborates with outside vendors including Republic Services (waste and recycling), CERO Cooperative (food waste composting), 4THBIN (electronic waste) and more. Outside vendors play a key role in Northeastern’s waste management program, ensuring materials are transported to appropriate processing facilities and ultimately delivered to secondary markets for manufacture into new products.   

Outside, there are large waste compactors and containers and solar powered bins. The large compactors on loading docks and behind buildings are essential in consolidating waste and weighing it. 

“The more we can gather metrics and data, the better we can perform our job and make changes,” Higgins said. 

Inside all buildings there are recycling stations, the familiar black, white and grey vessels and in residence buildings there are totes and hampers in the trash room where students can deposit their personal waste and recycling.  Higgins and her team have also installed battery collection bins across campus to increase the collection and recycling of all types of batteries. 

In addition to what Higgins and the rest of the materials and recycling team are already doing, they have many projects to expand in the future. East Village residence hall now has a compost bin in addition to trash and recycling and she is hoping to expand composting to more residence halls in the future. In 2022, dining halls and other campus eateries produced over 800 tons of food waste that was diverted from trash and composted.  

Also, in 2022, Higgins implemented a specialty plastics recycling program for labs on campus.  The program was developed in collaboration with lab staff that were looking for opportunities to operate their lab programs more sustainably.  The program collects and recycles animal cages, pipette tip boxes, media bottles and other PET ( #1) and PP (#5) clean plastic from labs.  The program was rolled out in five buildings in 2022 (ISEC, Mugar, Egan, and Hurtig and 140 The Fenway) and collected 1.9 tons of plastic for recycling.  In 2023, Higgins is working with lab operations and safety managers to identify additional collection locations.  

Higgins discussed the “big 10” contaminators that are placed in recycling bins. Anything with food or liquid cannot be recycled, or paper milk or juice cartoons or coffee cups. Mixed materials cannot be recycled through standard recycling programs, neither can packing materials, plastic bags or shredded paper.  

Next, Caitlyn Smith, the recycling and organics coordinator for Republic Services, spoke about what happens when the trash and recycling is collected. Trash is taken to a transfer station holding area before it is brought to an incinerator or landfill. Currently, Massachusetts landfills are nearing capacity, so on a state-wide basis trash is more frequently shipped out to a different state. 

Recycling, however, is taken to one of the nine material recovery facilities (MRFs) in the state, which sorts materials and prepare it for delivery to secondary material markets. Northeastern’s recycling is taken to Casella Waste Systems MRF in Charlestown, MA. Incoming materials are first visually inspected  then placed into a feeder to begin the sorting process. Employees are vigilantly looking for items that are known as “tanglers” which damage the sorting machines. Plastic bags, ropes, chords, Christmas lights and clothing can all be considered tanglers, which would cause the machines to stop or even break. Cardboard is sorted first because of its size as smaller things are shaken out including glass or small pieces of plastic. Anything smaller than a credit card falls through the grate.  

Metal is collected via magnetism and plastic is optically sorted and blown into different piles based on the resin type of the container. If plastics are too heavy to be essentially blown over, they will not be collected, which is why it is so important to make sure there is no liquid in the containers that may weigh it down.  

Smith spoke about the importance of recycling aluminum because there are only two ways to get it: recycling and mining, and recycling is obviously much better for the environment.  

Ultimately, the recycling is packaged into bales and sold.  

Smith references attendees to the Massachusetts Recyle Smart campaign and website which details Massachusetts’ current practices and requirements.   

Gretchen Carey, current president of the non-profit industry association MassRecycle and Sustainability Manager at Republic Services, spoke next. Carey discussed the importance of educating people that recycling not only saves natural resources and diverts materials from landfills, but it also creates jobs. According to Carey, for every one person at a trash facility, they need 10 for recycling. Recycling also supports the local economy by keeping recycled materials local rather than sending waste to a landfill in  a different state.  

“Job creation is a big selling point for people, if you are talking about people like legislators for instance, or if you are working for a municipal situation,” Carrey said.  

Keeping with the economic theme, she spoke about recycling bales as a commodity because they need to be bought by another company who will make something out of it. 

With so many professionals working hard behind the scenes to ensure that students’ waste ends up in the right places, students should do their part as well. Students can ensure recycling products are rinsed, empty and in the right bins, try to reduce food waste or try to reduce their waste in general.  

The full lunch and learn recording be found here!


Written by Renée Abbott, April 10th, 2023