Next to Western Kentucky University’s main dining hall a red, metal cardboard crusher – one of three on campus, flattens a mess of card board boxes into a tightly-compacted bunch ready to be hauled away. But cardboard is just part of the equation. Throughout campus, there are hundreds of recycling bins, encouraging students and staff to reduce the amount of trash WKU puts into landfills.
“Anything the university no longer wants that is not in a trash can,” said Sara Hutchison, WKU’s recycling and surplus coordinator. “That can be cardboard and the single-stream recycling, which includes the aluminum cans, tin cans like a Campbell’s soup can; plastic bottles; mixed paper – magazines, newspaper, office paper.”
Hutchison is our tour guide for an inside look at what happens to all of the discarded by-products of a college campus.
Across University Drive is the Supply Services building. A ride up a large service elevator brings us to the university’s surplus storage facility.
It’s an expansive top floor of the building with stacks of stools on one side, desks and tables across the way. Shelves full of computer monitors on the other. A neatly organized stack of computer keyboards in another corner. When something is discarded on campus, in generally winds up here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of its usefulness.
Hutchison takes us over to a box full of electronics – e-waste as they call it and picks up two Apple power cords.
“You would not believe how many people ask me for a MacBook Pro power cord,” said Hutchison. “And the reason being, is that a lot of professors or staff use their laptops both and home and work and they don’t want to carry around that extra power cord and plug in when they get to their office and plug in when they get home.”
“And so, this is the stuff that gets me excited,” exclaimed Hutchison. “Because when I see things that I’m going to easily be able to use on campus – that’s the best part.”
Virtually anything that can be re-used, her department tries to find a new home for it. If no one on campus wants it after a month or two – it will be sold at auction, donated to a local school district or community center or recycled.
Some of what winds up in the Supply Services building may find a new owner, while other items may have reached the end of their usefulness.
“We have ‘As Good as it Gets’ on VHS, we have ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ as well. We get VHS tapes, we get Kodak carousel slide project stuff and we hold them up to the light and see what was on the projector slides,” said Hutchison.
She says WKU’s Recycling and Surplus programs holds periodic auctions, where the public can bid on furniture and the like. She says old school furniture has made a surprising return to popularity.
“We’re really surprised to find what stuff goes for so much money. There are things for we think will easily go for, you know, twenty bucks and no one will bid on it. And something we think is broken or useless and we’ll get really high bids. Auctions are always interesting to see how much value people put on what we thought was junk,” said Hutchison.
Hutchison says auctions and recycling to bring in a little money – but most of those funds are used to defray the costs of sending the university’s waste to be recycled. She says it’s not so much about making money, but about making sure the university’s footprint is as small as possible.
“It’s part of our responsibility to make sure that the item get out of the way for that department but that it’s being disposed of in an environmentally friendly way and we remove the Freon [from an old refrigerator] and de-commission it and the copper gets recycled. The same with computers – we go through hundreds of computers. Our responsibility to crush the hard drives in them, to be sure no data is going to go off-campus to someone who doesn’t need it. We send most of our electronics off to a recycler who either refurbishes them or they recycle them as well. It’s really important for us that we know what happens to Western’s stuff even after it leaves Western.”
Recycling, donations or auctions – wherever the university’s stuff goes is okay with Hutchison, so long as it’s not a landfill.
“Sometimes we get a lot of junk, but we get a lot of really interesting things that come into surplus,” said Hutchison. “They say you can tell a lot about a person from what they throw away – and that is so true. You get a real sense of what Western is working on and what stuff they’re no longer working on and the direction they’re going as far as technology. All this stuff they no longer want is coming in here.”