Reuse, expand, recycle: plastic bag intiative

By Lisa Schulz

In a vast room cluttered with various creations of reused materials, a dumpster piled high and green plastic bags stuffed with balled-up grocery bags towered over Neale Baldyga, who brandished the master machine that removes contaminants from recyclables: his hands.

Despite the dirty work, Baldyga, Colu-mbia’s recycling outreach coordinator, and the nine-member recycling program staff continue to encourage students to contribute their plastic bags. Five high-traffic student areas are now home to gray bins where plastic encasing can be recycled.

The accepted plastic doesn’t include zip-lock bags.

“We’re making it easy for you, so work with us,” Baldyga said. “Eventually, you’re going to be ingesting those plastic bags. They photodegrade and break down into small, small bits and the toxins get into the water and soil. It’s a subtle pollution.”

The extended plastic bag initiative originated in October 2010 in support of a day for environmentally-friendly contributions, with more than 188 countries participating, Baldyga said. The proactive challenge was hosted by 350.org, an activist website aimed at reducing causes of global warming.

Decorated bins were initially placed in Columbia’s residence halls. After 10 months, 550 pounds of plastic bags were collected.

The new bins are located on the side of the Hokin Gallery in the Wabash Campus Building, 623 S. Wabash Ave.; the 33 E. Congress Parkway Building, 5th floor; the Underground Cafe in the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave.; The Loft, 916 S. Wabash Ave. building, and the Conaway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave.

These five locations were added to typical student hangouts, Baldyga said. Students are more likely to carry miscellaneous items in disposable bags in these areas, bring lunch in plastic grocery bags or open items encased in plastic. Putting bins in lobbies is next, he said.

Bins are located solely inside of campus buildings to ensure the protection against vandalism and stray contaminants. Collecting recyclables from the South Loop community would be too large a contribution to dispose of, and would exceed the program’s budget, Baldyga said.

However, shipping 550 pounds of plastic bags isn’t weighing down the program’s budget.

A student worker collects bags from each bin, and then the plastic bags are compacted into a smaller volume by a vacuum and transported once a semester by Columbia’s environmentally conscious, 85 percent ethanol-fueled E-85 van. Compacted plastic bags are taken to Antek Madison Plastics USA, 8822 S. Dobson Ave., with which the college has developed a new partnership over the year.

“It’s a fairly cheap program the way it’s running right now,” said John Wawrzaszek, recycling program manager. “We’re doing a lot better for low costs than we would if we were just throwing this stuff away.”

A pound of plastic takes 91 percent less energy than a pound of paper to recycle, Baldyga said.

In the industrial recycling process, two types of plastic bags, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene, are combined and condensed into tiny pellets, said Jorge Aguilar, general manager of AMPU.

Pellets are the end-process of melted plastic beads, which are used to create new bags.

“It’s an easy relationship for us to manage at this point,” Aguilar said of the college’s new partnership. “We don’t see a tremendous volume from [Columbia], so it’s easy for us to package it up with various light products. We have other vendors that want to sell us more truckloads than we can really handle because recycling isn’t about supply; it’s about demand.”

Along with new partnerships, the recycling program is looking into new projects. Plans for operating a food compositing center from areas around campus and cafeterias is in development.

“Going green is not always glamorous,” Baldyga said. “That’s one thing I think is kind of funny. Going green is [shown] in the mainstream media as something that’s cool, but when [younger people] see certain things it takes, [like] composting or sorting things, they say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ But it has to be done.”

Even though the work isn’t glamorous, the recycling program could always use aesthetic help from classes or artistic individuals who want to get involved, Baldyga said.

“Columbia’s a very aesthetic school, and things that look pretty go a long way,” he said.

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