Volunteer efforts to organize campus recycling at Virginia Tech date back to at least the mid-1970s. A decade later, a broad public reaction to the American “throw-away culture” and concern over a perceived “landfill crisis,” coupled with a new wave of environmentalism, prompted faculty/staff volunteers and students from the YMCA-sponsored organization Ecocycle to promote campus-wide aluminum can recycling. With support from President McComas, a grant from the Commonwealth of Virginia, and through “contracts” with various motivated student groups, Ecocycle succeeded in instituting the program in core campus buildings over the next 2-3 years. Eventually, this collection system was absorbed by the Physical Plant Custodial Services and was gradually expanded to include collection of source-separated glass bottles (clear/brown/green) and plastic bottles (#1 and #2).
In 1989-90, faculty volunteers from the English Department in Williams Hall initiated a paper recycling program (in cooperation with Cycle Systems of Roanoke), which quickly expanded to include departments in approximately 20 other buildings. The English Instructor who spearheaded the effort then approached the Head of Physical Plant and proposed the university hire him to manage the growth of the program. After initially being hired in a part-time role, he resigned his position as part-time English Instructor in 1992 to become the university’s first full-time Recycling Coordinator and thereby launched Virginia Tech Recycling (VTR).
Recycling programs at other universities came into being similarly during the same period, and from this movement emerged the College and University Recycling Council (CURC) which established a listserv and linked campus recycling programs around the country for the first time. In the mid-1990’s, VTR teamed with its counterpart programs at UVa, JMU, VCU, and GMU, to create VaCURC, for sharing experience and advice.
In the early years of operation, VTR established a daily collection route for corrugated cardboard, formalized and expanded collection of Mixed Paper, helped negotiate arrangements for the handling of cans and bottles by Custodial Services, improved the collection of scrap metals, attempted the recycling of ballast/fluorescent tubes, and assisted in negotiating a university contract with Waste Management to provide 30-cubic yard recycling rolloffs for collection of aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastic bottles in the university's dining halls.
In 1992, VTR coordinated with the Grounds Department to develop a low-tech leaf/grass composting arrangement and initiated a yardwaste/pallet mulching operation, both situated at the university’s closed sanitary landfill. These efforts were complemented by composting research through Crop and Soils Environmental Sciences, and in the late 1990s, with the approval of the Assistant Vice President for Facilities and input from a variety of departments, a full-blown proposal for a “Bio Conversion Research and Service Facility” was developed and proposed to the university in 2000.
Also during the early- and mid-1990s, Montgomery County began preparations for the formal closure of its Mid-County Landfill, which Virginia Tech and other local jurisdictions had used for trash disposal. After almost five years of negotiation and the partnership of Virginia Tech, the Towns of Christiansburg and Blacksburg, and Montgomery County, the Montgomery Regional Solid Waste Authority (MRSWA) was formed. MRSWA became responsible for the Department of Environmental Quality-monitored closure of the Mid-County Landfill, construction of a Transfer Station for the handling of solid waste, negotiations with the New River Resource Authority (NRRA) for transport and disposal of solid waste in the Cloyd’s Mountain Landfill, and the design and construction of a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for the processing and sale of recyclables.
In 2002, due to budget cuts, VTR lost three positions and ceased daily collection of recyclable paper. Numerous departments and individuals requested continuation of collection services in some form, and VTR helped by providing bins, bags, and carts to those who wanted them and opened a campus recycling station in the Overflow Parking Lot. Meanwhile, VTR continued to manage other aspects of campus recycling, notably for corrugated cardboard, commingled cans/bottles, Print Shop scrap, and ferrous/non-ferrous metals. With VTR support, students from the Environmental Coalition provided paper collection services to various buildings and residence halls from 2002-2009.
In Fiscal Year 2007-08, new funding was provided to VTR, and it was able to hire back three employees and purchase a dedicated collections truck and accessory materials. With these resources, VTR was authorized to reinstate paper recycling in academic and administrative buildings. This was accomplished over a span of five months, from mid-October 2008 through late March 2009, for 60-70 buildings, and eliminated the need for student volunteers to handle any recycling collections on campus.
In 2009, Virginia Tech Dining Services partnered with Poplar Manor Enterprises (PME) to begin an on-campus composting program at the Southgate Food Processing Facility. Every year, more dining facilities were added to the composting program, and today composting is available in all dining facilities on campus for both pre- and post-consumer compostable products. Each year, Dining Services converts more of serve-ware to compostable materials, finally eliminating Styrofoam to-go containers and cold cups in the spring semester of 2015. In the late spring of 2015, PME went out of business, and compost collection was picked up by VTR and our waste hauler, Bob’s Refuse Service. As of June 2015, the university's compost is sent to another composting facility, Commonwealth Compost and Recycle Services (CCRS). Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is discussing options to begin processing compost on campus.
In the course of establishing a durable recycling collections operation, Virginia Tech Recycling initiated significant improvements in the efficiency and cleanliness of campus trash collection, especially during the periods of Student Move-In and Student Move Out. Since 2006, the YMCA, with assistance from VTR, has coordinated the award-winning YToss event, which collects usable discards during Move Out, and resells them (after sorting, cleaning, and repair), to students the following fall through a temporary “store” in the McComas Gym. Since its inception, the Ytoss program has diverted over 100 tons of materials, engaged over 1200 community volunteers, and has generated over $60,000 to support other YMCA programs targeted at families, children, and teens.
Over the years, recyclable materials have been increasingly combined in recycling bins. For example, when recycling started in the 1980s, glass had to be separated by color, plastic had to be separate from metals, and white paper had to be separate from colored paper, newspaper, and magazines. In summer 2015, MRSWA converted its operations to single stream recycling, which means that all recyclable materials are allowed to be put into one single recycling bin, which is sorted at the materials recovery facility mechanically. MRSWA became more of a way-station, as most recyclable materials are now trucked up to Roanoke to be processed. MRSWA still handles some materials like cardboard and hazardous materials. This decision made recycling easier for collections crews and users alike.
Recycling from athletic events, particularly home football games, remains a significant challenge, but with the involvement of Athletics, recycling of cans/bottles from the stadium now takes place on a routine basis. Recycling in Residence Halls, historically sporadic and problematic, is being approached comprehensively through student programs. Overall, VTR has sought to demonstrate that recycling, far from being simply an expensive “add-on,” brings multiple benefits to basic services.