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Take Your University’s Recycling Program to the Next Level with the RUBICONMethod

Whether you’re a student, faculty, or staff member, your college is probably getting more sustainable in its operations and looking to help deliver positive change for our planet. With recent statistics from the Princeton Review reporting that 64 percent of incoming students and their parents pick their college in part based on sustainability factors, how can you make a real and sustainable difference on your campus and join this movement?

At Rubicon®, our mission is to end waste, in all of its forms. This starts with the physical waste that we see in our landfills (which emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas 28-36 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide), rivers, and oceans each and every day. Knowing what can be recycled is a challenge for all of us; but if done correctly, recycling has the potential to have a big impact.

Trash and recycling are tangible—students, faculty, and visitors to your campus take note if you have a good recycling and waste diversion program in place, and perhaps even worse, they take notice if you do not have such a program in place. In the same way that university and college campuses that ensure that graffiti is removed within one day, or that broken windows are quickly repaired, demonstrate that this behavior is unacceptable; when your campus keeps waste and recycling bins side by side throughout its grounds, you communicate to everyone who enters your campus that recycling and waste diversion are part of your values and the right things to do.

How to DIVERT University Waste

This probably all sounds great, but how can your university set up a successful waste and recycling program on your campus? Enter, the RUBICONMethod™.

The RUBICONMethod is a six-step program designed to help users work toward achieving successful recycling and waste reduction goals. Purpose-built to be accessible for everyone from small businesses and community centers, to multi-billion dollar corporations, the RUBICONMethod was created after we saw, time and again, the most common recycling and waste reduction mistakes that plague institutions of all sizes. The method highlights best practices that can help to move the needle on your recycling program.

Let’s go through the six-step method from the point of view of universities, and talk about key areas that can make a difference on your campus.

D: Determine

What are your university’s goals when it comes to recycling and waste reduction? Where is your campus today in terms of its recycling infrastructure, and what resources does it already have in place?

A key part of this step is determining what the recycling vendors in your city currently accept. Whether city- or commercially-owned, the ability to recycle certain items on your campus will largely be determined by what these haulers accept. Take a look at Rubicon’s guide to what makes something recyclable to find out more.

Besides trash, recycling, and compost, could your university add bins for hard to recycle materials such as electronic waste, plastic film (like grocery bags, which typically are not accepted in mixed recycling), and donation bins for items in good condition?

I: Initiate

Once you’ve determined your university’s goals and what can be recycled in your city, it’s time to lay out your new plan, timeline, stakeholders, and a budget for your improved recycling program.

Rubicon can help on the vendor side. Do you have the right vendors in place to haul away your campus’s waste and recycling? Are you currently getting over-serviced (receiving too many pick-ups compared to your needs)? If you decided to add a food waste and composting program to your university’s cafeterias, will you need this as an add-on service? During this step, take the time to figure out how many new bins and/or new pieces of equipment you might need.

V: Vocalize

When working on improving your university’s recycling program, don’t leave out any key stakeholders. Your university’s janitorial crew, for example, are key because they are the last step in the process to get the right materials in the right bins at the back of house.

At Rubicon, we recommend using picture-based signage (such as these signs from Recycle Across America) for bins because it takes the guesswork out of recycling and it eliminates possible language barriers. Remember, consistency is key! Label every bin, everywhere—even in bathrooms!

Think about what existing student groups you have on campus that would be willing to help get the word out about your program, fundraise for new bins/signage, and/or volunteer at events or during high traffic times in your cafeteria to help people sort their waste correctly. When people on campus have a question or want to get involved, how do they contact you? Consider creating an email address or webpage for inquiries.

E: Eliminate

The best way to save money on waste and recycling (and purchasing), is to eliminate waste upstream. For example, could your campus:

  • Eliminate disposable cups at the coffee bar, paper towels in restrooms, and plastic bags at the student store?
  • Stop using products which typically can’t be recycled curbside, such as plastic straws, single-use plastics, and Styrofoam?
  • Buy in bulk to reduce unnecessary packaging waste and save money—for example, purchasing bulk sugar instead of sugar packets?
  • Encourage food waste reduction through signage and not providing cafeteria trays? When the University of California, Santa Barbara removed trays from their dining hall in 2009, the food waste per person, per tray dropped by 50 percent.

R: Roll-out

When your university rolls out your new recycling and waste reduction plan as part of the RUBICONMethod, it is important to ensure that all bins are placed side-by-side, and that they use the correct color liner or trash bag.

If you have a trash bin on one side of a classroom and a recycling bin on the other, everyone will just use the one closest to them, meaning that the recycling bin will become contaminated with trash, and valuable recyclable materials will end up in the landfill. Make sure that bins are always placed together; whether just waste and recycling, or waste, recycling, and compost. At Rubicon, we like to put the landfill bin on the left (L) and the recycling bin on the right (R). This is easy to remember because recycling is the “right” thing to do!

Trash bags or liners are another key way to indicate that the correct materials are going in the correct bin. We recommend black for trash/landfill, clear for recycling (so that you can see what is in the bag), and green biodegradable bags for compost. Besides catching the attention of the person who is trying to recycle properly, it also helps the janitorial staff know where to put each bag at the back of the house once they collect it during cleaning.

T: Track

An inexpensive way to see how your new diversion program is going is to conduct your own waste audit. The RUBICONMethod Waste Audit Guide provides a template for running your own waste audit so that you can figure out how well your university’s recycling program is going.

We recommend doing an audit before implementing improvements (this is your baseline), another audit soon after implementation (to see where you might have hang ups and make tweaks), and another audit a few months after implementation to track how well the program is going.

You may decide to make these audits an annual or quarterly event going forward. It can also be a great educational experience for participants. Making those metrics public can help keep students, faculty, and staff motivated because they can actually see that their contributions are making a difference.

If you’re looking to improve your university’s sustainability credentials, you can’t go wrong with the RUBICONMethod. At Rubicon, our mission is to end waste, in all of its forms. If you would like to join us on our mission, download our full RUBICONMethod guide, or reach out to us at any time.


Elizabeth Montoya is Vice President of Investor Relations at Rubicon, and co-creator of the RUBICONMethod. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.

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