Talking Trash on Campus

Go Green infographic giving tips on saving energy, recycling, and reuse.
Infographic by Zainab Saleh

It has been nearly a year since Kimberly Chamberlin reported that Henry Ford College does not recycle paper and plastic waste in her Mirror News investigative piece, “Where Does Our Trash Go?” Chamberlin found that all the recycling bins around campus were leftover from a prior recycling program that had been discontinued. Has Henry Ford College made any headway in a more sustainable and green campus? Faculty and staff have come together to try to answer this question.

To see how far HFC has come, we need to look at where it was. Ten years ago, there was a comprehensive recycling program in place but allegedly became too expensive after students failed to properly sort recyclables from the trash. Sandro Silvestri, the executive director of facilities, also claims that the company hired to dispose of the recyclables ended up mixing it with regular trash and taking it to a dump or an incinerator. The recycling program was ended due to the increasing costs.

Henry Ford College hasn’t been idle when it comes to sustainability and recycling with a substantial hazard waste disposal plan that is in accordance with state laws. Campus equipment batteries are recharged and recycled and battery collection buckets are located throughout campus. Any time there is a remodel on campus, the lighting is updated to LED bulbs and both LEDs and fluorescent bulbs are collected and disposed of safely and never thrown in the trash. When the science building was remodeled in 2012, the mercury-containing thermometers were removed.

The largest overhaul has been the rebuilding of the cooling tower in the liberal arts building and should save between 40 and 50 percent on electricity and water usage. The electrical system is in a constant state of improvement by upgrading to high-efficiency transformers and electrical switches, bringing more savings to the college.

HFC has an efficient and lucrative metal recycling program. “Metal recycling more than pays for itself,” says Silvestri. The college has an excess of metal from engineering and trade skill programs. The metal is collected from various drop off points and loaded into the shovel of a bulldozer and is emptied in a dumpster when full. When the dumpster is full, the metal is hauled away to a recycling center. The difference in these upgrades and recycling paper and plastic is that recycling paper and plastic costs money and all of the current improvements have either saved money or made money for HFC.

“Paper and plastic used to be lucrative,” Silvestri said and he isn’t wrong. HFC stopped recycling not long after the value of recyclables dropped from $170 per ton to just $40.

The above-mentioned improvements were made before the release of Chamberlin’s story. So what has happened since? The Integrated Energy Master Plan (IEMP) has been created.

“The IEMP is done,” Silvestri said of the new plan, “so we are closer than last year. The IEMP is about developing a more sustainable campus.”

The IEMP is supposed to renovate facilities to meet “World Class” energy performance standards. The IEMP’s priorities will include energy reliability, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions and energy cost. This transformative plan is aimed at reducing the energy and emissions footprint of the College by at least 50 percent to bring it in line with the best practices around the globe.

Another important goal of the IEMP will be to create new academic offerings including new courses, apprenticeships and internships. The academic portion would include a lot of outreach with groups like the American Institute of Architecture and other similar organizations. The plan will also look to add post-bachelor certificate programs, like the current Biotechnology Certificate program. It will possibly add a bachelor’s degree in the energy field which is one of the few areas community colleges in Michigan can offer a four-year degree.

The IEMP is undoubtedly a great plan that will bring energy efficiency and sustainability as well as more academic programs pertaining to the environment and energy. What about the daunting task of paper and plastic recycling?

“I don’t know if it will be possible fiscally,” says Silvestri, “It will probably never happen.”

What do other community colleges in the area do with regard to recycling paper and plastic? Macomb Community College recycles paper, plastic, and tires along with everything that HFC is currently doing. At Lansing Community College, recycling bins are located throughout campus for paper, newsprint, plastic bottles, glass and pop cans, cardboard, styrofoam, packing peanuts and batteries. Monroe Community College recycles paper, bottles, cans and bags, and reports recycling 43 percent of nearly 1 million pounds of waste per year. That is nearly a half million pounds of trash that isn’t sitting in a landfill or burned releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Silvestri told Chamberlin last year, “The question is, do you increase tuition? Do you put a recycling fee on things?”

HFC’s tuition is currently $96 per college credit (in-district), Macomb is $127 per credit and Lansing is $103 per credit.

“I’m no tree hugger but I think it is important to be responsible stewards of the environment for the future generations,” Silvestri says. He says his responsibility is to try to find a way to be more sustainable while also being realistic about finances. Even if he wanted to initiate a paper and plastic recycling plan, it would still fall in the hands of the college brass to approve.

What may account for the lack of funds for recycling and how dedicated the college administration is to energy sustainability may have to do with what is prioritized. The previous administration installed large blue letter signs that mark each building that seldom match the classrooms, potentially impacting the ability of students to successfully find their classes during the first couple weeks of each semester. A new digital sign was installed recently in the middle of campus between the liberal arts building and the fine arts building. It flashes the same information that can be found on the many digital bulletin boards located around campus.

Currently, a collective of staff, students, and faculty is clamoring for change. They formed a committee called the Sustainable Community of Practice (SCOP), which believes that to maintain the college’s academic integrity, broaden the college’s social commitment, and preserve the campus community, Henry Ford College should embrace the goal of sustainability and formulate a comprehensive plan for achieving it.

One of the members of SCOP, Gary McIlroy, an English professor, is an avid proponent for campus-wide green initiatives and recycling. McIlroy says, “We need more people with vision and commitment.”

Recycling is also advocated by Zachariah Polzin and Mary Parekunnel, who are the faculty co-advisors for the Student Environmental Association,* the student club that started a plastic bottle recycling program in the science building that has been successful, but the normal ebb and flow of students has caused a slowdown in progression. The environmental club is a chance for students to get involved with campus recycling and it may take an act by the students to motivate change.

Environmentally concerned students can get involved by contacting SCOP at The informal group welcomes all within the HFC community. Its purpose is to gather environmentally minded individuals from across campus to discuss ideas, initiatives, and information. It is a support group that seeks to engage, assist, and inspire others on campus. The next meeting is at 2:30 pm. - 3:30 p.m. on May 2 in room E-123, Ghafari Conference room.

Another program that will encourage the youth of the area to think green is a 3-Day Environmental Science and Biology Camp for children between the sixth and ninth grade. The prospective dates are July 17 to July 19. The children will conduct labs and courses both inside and out that will teach the importance of recycling and sustainability. The program is headed by HFC’s own Mary Parekunnel who currently teaches Environmental Studies.

McIlroy pointed out that if HFC is to stay true to its mission, then we will need a greener campus. The mission statement states that, “We demonstrate INTEGRITY through accountability, responsible stewardship, ethical conduct, honest dialogue, and sustainable practices.” The tasks of responsible stewardship and sustainable practices seem impossible without a valid recycling program.

McIlroy states that recycling is “ultimately the only thing to do. If we do not jump on the bandwagon it will be too late.” As many college campuses in Michigan are already recycling, it remains to be seen if HFC jumps on the bandwagon.

  • Correction: the April 9, 2018, print edition incorrectly referred to Gary McIlroy as the advisor of the Student Environmental Association. He is a former advisor. The current co-advisors are Zachariah Polzin and Mary Parekunnel.