Opening Days Boost Harvard Recycling

University saves money by recycling 20.31 tons of move-in trash

Harvard’s trash output more than doubled during the first few days of move-in this year, peaking well above the 10 tons it posts during a typical three-day period, according to Michael D. Conner, communications manager for University Operations Services.

20.31 tons of recyclable cardboard, bottles, cans, and paper were picked up in the days immediately following move-in, Conner said.

But the boxes and recyclables students discard during the move-in process are not simply loaded into a truck and sent to the dump to deteriorate alongside rusty cars and Styrofoam.

Instead, the boxes become part of Harvard’s sustainability effort—a system that “goes way beyond the walls of our campus” and allows more than half of Harvard’s discarded goods to be recycled, according to Robert Gogan, recycling and waste services manager for Facilities Maintenance Operations.

Harvard owns five recycling trucks of its own, but during intense garbage periods like move-in, Gogan said the University contracts additional trucks to handle the initial volume.

“Our recycling trucks are always roaming around,” Conner said, “[but during opening days] we increase it a bit just because the volume is so much.”

During move-in period, recycling trucks work at least 12 hours a day making sweeps of undergraduate residences, Conner said. Once the quantity of trash falls back to normal levels, the truck cycle will be reduced, he said.

The trucks drive Harvard’s recycling—everything from a freshman’s mini-fridge box to a discarded Ec 10 syllabus—to FCR Casella, a processing plant in Charlestown, MA, roughly three miles from campus.

There the recyclables are sorted so that they can be sold to different companies to produce new products. The discarded Ec 10 syllabus, for example, becomes part of the fibers for Crane’s stationery—a company with which FCR Casella does business.

Last year, Harvard University generated roughly 7,500 tons of trash and 8,500 tons of recycling and composting, according to Conner. The resulting 55% recycling rate put Harvard at the top of the Ivy League in terms of recycling, he said.

“For a research university, that is really good,” Gogan said.

The push for recycling is not only an environmentally friendly endeavor—it is also an economically savvy one. Disposing of garbage in a trash disposal costs the University $87 per ton, but according to Gogan, recycling a ton currently costs the University less than half that amount—about $35 a month.

“We save $52 for every ton we are able to recycle instead of discard as trash,” Gogan said. “So we do have to pay for it, but it is less than we would have paid to get it land-filled.”

Though Gogan does much to ensure that the University is sustainable on a macro level, others pitch in to keep the day-to-day operations in order.

“My job is to ensure that we capture the most possible composting and recycling,” said David A. Seley of Harvard University Dining Services, who directs students on how to dispose of their plates and silverware at outdoor events where food is served, such as Aloha Harvard and the Activities Fair.

According to Seley, the University’s systems have been developed to “maximize” how much of the eating accoutrements are recycled, including the wide-spread use of compostable plates, silverware, and napkins at University dining facilities.

—Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached at