Last year, a group of students from Michigan Tech’s Sustainability Demonstration House (SDH) started a new tradition meant to reduce waste and encourage reusing and recycling in the Keweenaw. The first-ever Waste Reduction Drive was a hit in 2020, and this year, the SDH is bringing the drive back, bigger and better than ever. According to Rose Turner, coordinator of the Sustainability Demonstration House, “The main goal of this drive is to reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill in the Keweenaw.”
The SDH team has selected a number of items that are not able to be recycled curbside and has found them other homes beyond the landfill. Items like styrofoam egg cartons are especially difficult to recycle, as there are only a handful of recycling centers that can process styrofoam across the United States. “I think one of the most important ones to mention is the egg cartons,” Turner says. “We give all of the egg cartons back to local chicken farmers in our community. We’re essentially trying to close the loop with egg cartons.” Egg cartons are hard to properly recycle, and often take many years to decompose in landfills. By saving egg cartons and providing them to local chicken farmers, those farmers don’t have to spend money on them, and they stay out of the landfill. Egg cartons of all varieties (styrofoam, plastic, cardboard, etc.) will be collected by the SDH in the Waste Reduction Drive this year.
Another item typically difficult to recycle is plastic film. This includes ziplock bags, bubble wrap, plastic wrap, and other forms of plastic that do not contain a recycling number. Trex, a company that manufactures composite decking boards, uses a unique blend of wood and plastic to make their boards. This creates a strong formula that holds up better in rough weather conditions (like the conditions we’re familiar with here in the Keweenaw) while also reducing plastic waste sent to the landfill. “How often do we use plastic wrap? How often do we get grocery bags at the store, or bubble wrap in the mail?” Turner adds. “Let’s collect this and send it off to be turned into decking board.”
Plastic bottle caps are commonly believed to be recyclable. While the plastic they are made out of technically is recyclable, their small size makes them too difficult to be properly recycled. When they arrive at recycling facilities, they are sent back to a landfill. To avoid this waste, the SDH has partnered with a company called Preserve. Through their Gimme 5 program, these #5 polypropylene plastics are collected by Preserve and made into new materials, such as plastic plates, toothbrushes, razors and more. “It’s really important that we keep those out of our recycling bins and we send them off to Preserve to actually be recycled into a usable product,” says Turner. In addition to their recycled plasticware, Preserve also sells a number of compostable, plant-based products.
Beyond the environmental benefits that the Waste Reduction Drive holds, Turner says there are other benefits the drive holds to the community. “The underlying goal is we need to educate the community on the many recycling and reuse opportunities available to us,” she says. Taking the time to stop before throwing something away is a key step into reducing waste. If the item can be recycled or reused in any way, it should be. “Just because something can’t be recycled in the blue curbside bin, doesn’t mean it can’t be recycled at all,” Turner says. The SDH also hopes this will help people really take a look at all the items they throw away every day and consider budget-friendly and environmentally conscious alternatives. Items such as toothpaste tabs, beeswax wrap or reusable plastic bags are just some ways one can reduce waste, and reduce their purchasing of said items.
Last year, the drive was extremely successful, with over 46,000 items collected by the SDH. That’s 46,000 items diverted from landfills, and 46,000 items reused and recycled into different products. “We were not expecting that many,” Turner says. “But it was crazy how many items we got.” The support from the local community was extremely positive, and Turner says many people at the drop-off were extremely appreciative of what the SDH was doing, and were excited to participate again in 2021.
The Waste Reduction Drive is available to everyone in the Keweenaw community that would like to participate. Currently, there are a number of drop-off boxes in the local community for a select number of items. For Michigan Tech students, razors, dental products and plastic film products can be dropped off in collection boxes in the McNair Hall lobby, outside the dining hall in Wadsworth Hall, and near the mailboxes in Douglass Houghton Hall. For community members or off-campus students, these items can be brought to the collection box in Houghton’s City Center, located downtown, near the UPS drop-off location that is open 24/7. According to Turner, a Hancock location is potentially in the works as well.
The rest of the items (plastic bottle caps and rings, foil-lined wrappers and egg cartons) should be saved up and dropped off on the official collection date, April 17. A location has yet to be determined, but the SDH is planning for this to be central to MTU campus, and they will be announcing more information soon. Last year, the drop-off day functioned as a drive-through, and Turner says this was extremely successful. This year, they plan to continue the drive-through process while also having a walk-up option for the many students that will be on-campus.
For a full list of items that the SDH is collecting for the Second Annual Waste Reduction Drive, click here. If you are interested in volunteering for the drive, please contact the SDH by email at email@example.com. Local chicken farmers that are interested in receiving reused egg cartons should also reach out at that email address. To see more of what the Sustainability Demonstration House is up to, you can check them out on Instagram @mtu.sdh or visit their website.