Guest Blogger Maggie Newell ’19 of Lexington, Kentucky, is a film studies and environmental studies double major. She is the senior fellow for waste reduction in the Office of Sustainability, a representative for the Class of 2019 on Honor Council, and the treasurer of the women’s rugby team.

I love properly sorted waste. My passion for recycling began at a very early age. I was in the recycling club in elementary school, and in middle school I made a fairly embarrassing video with my mom to enter into the Green Team Kentucky Video Festival*...we did not win. At Conn, I have gone on to bigger and better things. I am the Senior Fellow for Waste Reduction in the Office of Sustainability. The Waste Reduction Team works with the campus community to expand and develop programs that will help the College reach its goal to reduce waste generation on campus by 5% by 2018. Needless to say, I know what goes in which bin. As someone “in the know” who cares about recycling I try to spread this information. I hope to steer others down the right path and to the right bins. I’ve gotten mixed results.

The worst way to try and get people around you to recycle properly is to yell at them when they do the wrong thing. I can speak from personal experience. One time during my first year, a good friend released her empty plastic cup, lid and straw over the recycling bin. I lunged forward and yelled, “THAT STRAW IS NOT RECYCLABLE!” In my mind, I was raising my voice because of urgency, rather than anger, in the hope of getting her to react before the straw was all the way into the recycling and had to be retrieved. In her mind I was getting mad at her for making an honest mistake, which recycling a straw certainly is. (Straws do seem like they should be recyclable, though they are not). It turns out that people don’t take it well when you criticize their behavior. It was time for a new tactic.

One ongoing compulsion/education tool I’ve adopted is to vigilante sort trash and recycling as I go about my daily life. This tactic may have some social and sanitation concerns. Do I really want to be seen as a gal who sorts through trash? I’ve done some soul searching and my answer is yes! I will not pull things out of trash or recycling if something is especially gross, but I’m not particularly squeamish. The benefit of this method is that you DO get a chance to teach the people you’re with, but by correcting the behaviors of others rather than them.  Also, you can reduce contamination rates (probably insignificantly, though I have no concrete data, but it still feels good to do something). One notable downside to this is that there is endless waste to sort and I am only one person. Only so much can be done.

Another method I use is the pre-bin intervention. This method is great for when you see someone with a lot of things they’re about to throw away and you question their ability to sort it correctly. I don’t like to judge, but sometimes I have to for the good of the planet. I have two methods for intervening and honestly they’re uncomfortable yet effective. One way is to literally take the refuse from the person. You say “Hey, your hands look full. Let me help you with that.” Then, I take their trash and sort it myself. They watch me quizzically AND learn what should go where. My other, more covert, intervention is to strike up a conversation about recycling. I say to someone carrying a Starbucks cup, “Doesn’t it suck that hot coffee cups can’t be recycled? Good thing the lid and cup sleeve are, amirite?!” The person rolls their eyes at me and then properly sorts their own waste from now until forever!

I have yet to come up with a comfortable and fool-proof way to teach everyone I know how to properly recycle. But, by some combination of all of the aforementioned methods, I have made it clear to pretty much everyone I know that recycling is important to me and I know a lot about it. People now ask me when they don’t know what to do with something, which is truly amazing. If they care enough to ask, then they care! I have certainly not turned everyone I know into pro-recyclers, but I am slowly weaving a web of knowledgeable disposers. I am optimistic that together we can make a change.


*The Green Team Kentucky Video Festival is a festival that promotes energy efficiency measures.