No cap: you’re not recycling properly

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By: Mira Costello


It’s easy to throw your water bottle in the blue recycling bin – and if you do, that’s great! You’re keeping a little more plastic from the landfill. But did you know you should be recycling your bottle cap separately?

   Plastic water bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is less dense and easier to recycle. However, most bottle caps are made of propylene (PP) or high density polyethylene (HDPE), which makes them more difficult to recycle traditionally. That’s what inspired Caps for Benches, an initiative started by youth at Elkhart County 4H Fair and brought to IU South Bend by Sustainability alumnae. 

   Krista Bailey, Director of the Center for a Sustainable Future at IU South Bend, said it started with students looking for creative ways to reduce waste on campus.

   “It really started with one student saying, ‘hey, there’s a fun, easy way that everybody can make a difference,” they said. “We wanted to support community efforts at recycling and waste reduction, but also campus efforts, so this seemed like a really nice bridge between the two.”

   Although Bailey said they were initially skeptical about how successful the initiative might be, it quickly surpassed expectations, despite concerns about how to maintain the project and manage it as the supervising students graduated.

   “I just wasn’t convinced that people would actually participate. A lot of times, it’s hard just to get people to recycle properly,” Bailey said. “What we found was that people started bringing in their collections of bottle caps from home. We started sharing it on our social media, and community members were contacting me about where they could drop their bottle caps off. Much to my surprise, I think it’s been one of the most popular, most highly participated-in projects we’ve ever done.”

   Cameron Kincaid, a senior Sustainability minor working at the Center for a Sustainable Future, is responsible for collecting from the bins. He said he has also been impressed by the participation in the project.

   “Once people are on board with it, they’re pretty serious about the collecting,” Kincaid said, “even people outside of school. Everyone has been pretty gung ho about it; I think it’s great.”

   According to the Elkhart County Fair website, Caps for Benches has saved over 30,000 pounds of plastic from the landfill since 2015, creating 90 benches made of 100% recycled material. 

   Students can drop off their bottle caps, as well as any plastics in accordance with the attached chart, in the labeled buckets and bins found in the Grill, Wiekamp Hall, Northside, Education and Arts, Administration, the Student Activities Center, the Library, the River Crossing Housing Community Building, and Parkside.

Trees, bees, LEED and sustainability

   Bottle cap collection is far from the only sustainability initiative happening at IU South Bend.

   Kincaid said students can get involved by helping with the community garden (located in campus housing), coming to IUSBees, and looking out for other events like projects to clean up litter and invasive plants from Howard Park and Veterans’ Park. 

   “We may be a small campus, but I feel like we still do a pretty good job of helping people adopt sustainable habits and breaking away from doing unsustainable things,” Kincaid said. “It’s not always going to be perfect – you’re not going to reach everyone, and that’s fine – but as long as you can reach the majority of people, you take it.”

   Kincaid noted that in his time at IU South Bend, he has seen improvements in sustainability efforts by the University: for example, getting rid of styrofoam in the Grill. However, he said he primarily hopes to see more student engagement in existing efforts: “ultimately, it is up to us,” he said.

   Bailey also discussed myriad sustainability efforts going on behind the scenes at IU South Bend.

   Most students probably don’t know that IU South Bend is a recognized Tree Campus, designated by the Arbor Day Foundation as a university trying to increase biodiversity, get rid of invasive species, care for the trees on campus, and have service projects and events to promote tree care and planting. 

   “It gives us some recognition and designation nationally as a campus that really cares about the campus ecosystem,” Bailey said. 

   Soon, they added, a group of students in Sustainability hope to release an interactive map of every tree on campus which will identify its species, size, age and more. 

   IU South Bend also has honeybees, which contribute to the campus ecosystem, certifying it as a bee campus.

   “It’s more than having bees,” Bailey said, “it’s doing education around pollinator protection, having habitat for pollinators, and the kind of management that we use on the plants so that we are not harming our very important pollinators that keep us going.”

   In rhyming spirit, IU South Bend is not only a tree campus and a bee campus but a LEED campus.

   LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is a widely used system for measuring green building development. The River Crossing Housing Community Building was the first ever LEED-certified building on any IU campus – and now, according to Bailey, all new and renovated buildings need to be built to LEED standards. These include considerations about energy efficiency, health, building materials, lighting and aesthetics. 

   “The Community Building in campus housing actually created a whole ripple effect across the IU system,” Bailey said. “We really set the trend for that, which is kind of cool.” Education and Arts is also LEED certified.

   “There’s a lot of work to create an environment that’s healthy for everybody, but that also isn’t going to cost us a ton of money, because that’s also not sustainable,” Bailey said. “Those are things you might not notice, but that actually take a lot of work behind the scenes.”

What you can do

   Both Bailey and Kincaid emphasized that adopting new sustainability initiatives – while certainly positive – does not need to be the campus’ main focus. 

   “One of the things we’re focused on right now is just engagement,” Bailey said, “getting more folks involved and aware of what’s going on, and how they can take an active role in that. And teaching some of the basic things about how individual behavior contributes to our overall campus impact.”

   So, what kind of individual behaviors can we change right now?

   Bailey reiterated that everyday things that seem small can make a big difference, like using a refillable water bottle, recycling properly, turning off the lights and turning in the bottle caps, and even using your Crimson Card to ride the city bus for free instead of driving.

   Students can also join Sustainability Club, which Bailey said is the easiest way to get involved with like-minded students.

   Students who want to think bigger can make a difference, too.

   “If people want to see sustainability initiatives on campus, they need to advocate for them, and do them, and help bring them about, and raise their concerns. Find some creative solutions and talk to administration about how to get those done,” Bailey said. “That’s really been what’s made changes on our campus: students identifying issues and finding creative solutions to them.”

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