Cal Poly Decreases Recycling Contamination with Help from CalRecycle Grant

Student in front of a pair of campus recycling containers

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly has decreased recycling contamination on campus by 15 percent, thanks to CalRecycle state grant funds totaling $225,000.

The CalRecycle grant, awarded in late 2019, provided the funds to improve beverage container recycling as part of the university's zero-waste goals. These funds helped the campus decrease recycling contamination from 37 percent in 2019 to 22 percent in 2021.

“We are very excited to see the needle move in a positive direction to reduce waste on campus,” said Anastasia Nicole, CalRecycle Grant lead and Cal Poly’s Zero Waste coordinator for Facilities Management and Development.

Contamination in recycle bins is a considerable obstacle to a successful recycling program; if recycling is not placed in the correct bins, it winds up in a landfill, Nicole said.

Before implementing the grant, campus recycling had a 37 percent contamination level. In 2020, after executing the new recycling program, contamination dropped to 29 percent. Contamination across campus further decreased to 22 percent in fall 2021 following optimization of the program.

The recycling program included buying universal signage to put on bins campuswide and clearly identifying what can be recycled and what goes to the landfill. It also included the purchase of 12 hands-free, solar-powered Big Belly compacting trash and recycling collection bins, which are placed in busy, high-volume areas. These Big Belly bins help decrease waste contamination and keep contents enclosed and compacted to keep areas litter-free. Along with these high-tech bins, more than 1,300 blue recycling bins were installed in interior hallways and student residence hall rooms.

The CalRecycle grant funded the signage and additional recycling receptacles and supported a campuswide marketing and communication campaign to educate and engage Cal Poly faculty, students, staff and visitors.

The campaign, “Time Well Spent,” details how long it takes glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers to break down in the landfill versus the time it takes to place a container in a recycling bin, highlighting that recycling is time well spent. One poster on a collection bin shows a glass bottle and the message: “It takes a million years to decompose or 1 minute to recycle.” The integrated recycling campaign includes social media posts, contests, portal and internal announcements, community outreach through events, and posters and flyers.

The grant included a Learn by Doing element, paying student assistants to implement the marketing and communication campaign and help with sign and bin logistics. In 2020, students distributed signage and bins and conducted marketing research to determine the best way to get the campus to take action. In 2021, students launched the marketing and communication campaign on social media, hosted a booth at the Sustainability Fair, developed contests to engage campus about recycling, and collaborated with local businesses to acquire prizes for the winners.

“It was a lot of hard work,” said Chloe Peng, a student assistant spearheading the marketing efforts, “But it was all worth it knowing I was making a difference. It was definitely time well spent.”

For more on Cal Poly’s sustainability efforts, visit:

March 14, 2022
Contact: Anastasia Nicole


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