Lexington is in serious need of R&R.
That could mean “rest and relaxation.” But to environmental advocates and professionals like Angela Poe, it could also mean “reducing and reusing.”
“Since the ‘70s, we’ve kind of treated recycling as the miracle solution to all the stuff we use and buy,” said Poe, a public information and engagement officer with Lexington’s Department of Environmental Quality & Public Works. “We tend to blur how we use those words [reduce, reuse and recycle].”
That is a serious problem, especially for a city like Lexington.
Last May, the city announced that paper would no longer be accepted in standard blue recycling bins because they’d amassed too much loose, low-grade paper and not enough interested buyers.
At Lexington’s recycling center, recyclable materials are not physically recycled but instead sorted and shipped off— and the center only has so much space. Before the paper ban began last year, several months passed where the city was unable to sell off its excess paper. That paper was eventually sent to the landfill.
Poe said that the move to temporarily suspend paper recycling was made for transparency’s sake.
“It’s not ideal, but really, environmental impact-wise and economic-wise, it’s cheaper if you just put it in the correct bin and take it to the landfill instead of having us process it and transport it [there] again,” Poe said.
At the time, the paper ban made few visible differences on UK’s campus, where paper remained (and remains) recyclable. When news broke of the change, UK Recycling broke from the city, according to UK Recycling Coordinator Joanna Ashford. The move was intended to reinforce UK’s pledge to increase on-campus recycling by 25 percent before 2022.
But the ban did spark an on-campus conversation about what is and what is not recyclable.
Many students and Lexingtonians operate under the belief that a recycle symbol makes it safe to throw in a blue bin— but, according to Poe, that’s “simply not true.”
Ashford said that UK Recycling encourages students to ignore recycling symbols and instead focus on how an item looks. Does it look like a bottle, jug or can? Then you’re probably in luck.
“So, your two-liter bottles, your water bottles, your laundry detergent bottles, your milk jugs — all of those can be recycled [on UK’s campus],” Ashford said. “But when it comes to your yogurt cups or your coffee cup… those items are not recyclable.”
In fact, not only are coffee cups un-recyclable, they’re contaminants. Leftover coffee often spills when tossed inside, which can seriously degrade surrounding materials.
“Everyone wants to recycle their cup,” Ashford said. “And it becomes a big issue for us.”
Ashford encouraged all UK students to “take the time to reach out” on UK Recycling’s social media when unsure about what is recyclable.
As for the city, an active forum of concerned, recycling Lexingtonians has already cropped up on social media in the form of Trash Talk. The Lexington Trash Talk page on Facebook, created by Live Green Lexington, currently sits at over 1,500 members. On a nearly daily basis, members ask questions about what is recyclable, where it’s recyclable and why.
Sometimes it gets heated. But recently, things are calming down as new, innovative solutions to waste management are implemented.
For example, earlier this year, Lexington began implementing a new paper-recycling program.
Yellow bins in well-trafficked areas across the city are now accepting white paper, catalogs and magazine paper (only).
By keeping these basic forms of paper separate from general recycling, the city is able to produce a “much cleaner, higher-quality product that there’s still a demand for,” Poe said.
It’s a start. But for the city and UK to properly reduce environmental footprints, students and Lexingtonians alike will need to focus on the other two Rs as well. That’s why UK Recycling has pledged to reduce its overall landfill output by half by 2022.
“That means (increasing) not only what we recycle, but increasing what we donate, what we reuse and what we compost on campus,” Ashford said.