How K-State and Fort Riley work together to reduce Manhattan waste

From left to right: Chris Otto, Erika Davis, Gerry and Gayla Snyder, Mary Conner, Richard Brenner, Linda Marston and Bill Spiegel stand inside the recycling center at Fort Riley. (Mik Fox | Collegian Media Group)

Walking across campus, blue bins can be seen scattered in various locations, usually next to regular trash cans. Many students likely walk past them every day on their way to class and don’t give them a second glance.

These blue bins are for recycling, of course, and there are over 66 blue bins on campus. However, they are not there just to help the environment — these bins have an impact that reaches beyond campus boundaries.

The recycling program on the Kansas State University campus has several decades of history. The program was established in 1989 through grants and funds that made it possible to purchase equipment needed to process different types of recyclable materials.

The committee that oversees K-State recycling was formed in 1998. The committee is made of students, faculty, staff and representatives from the Division of Facilities. In order to reduce waste and decrease management costs, the committee’s goal is to expand efforts to recycle on campus.

To learn more about the complete recycling process at K-State, the committee recently took a field trip to the recycling center located on base at the nearby Fort Riley, which is where all the recyclable materials from K-State eventually end up for further processing.

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Small recyclable items travel on a conveyer belt in the recycling center at Fort Riley. (Mik Fox | Collegian Media Group)

Chris Otto is the recycle and solid waste coordinator for the Department of Public Works environmental division at the Fort Riley Recycling Center, and he explained where recyclable materials go after arriving at Fort Riley.

“Since we are a not-for-profit government agency, we sell any recyclable materials, and the profits from those go into a [Qualified Recycling Program] expense account,” Otto said. “After we pay for salaries, the people that work here and all of the operations and maintenance, anything left over, we invest back into the installation [at Fort Riley].”

Contributing to the K-State recycling program, which in turn contributes to the Fort Riley program, allows K-State to contribute to the morale, welfare and recreational opportunities for soldiers who live and work on the base, Otto said.

“Anything we get into the center that we sell comes back to benefit the soldiers after we pay for operations to the recycling center,” Otto said. “We have bought boats for the marina, we have updated the bowling alley and a good amount of what we reinvest in comes from [the recycling center].”

Fort Riley is currently working with the Environmental Protection Agency to research recycling opportunities and achieve net zero waste. The Net Zero Waste program is an initiative implemented in 2011 by former president Barack Obama’s administration to help reduce waste on military bases.

In 2016, the Fort Riley recycling center was able to install an automated sorter to separate recyclable materials. The state-of-the-art facility is able to process about 1,600 tons of recycling per month. The sorter uses different technologies to separate the various materials accordingly.

While the sorter does most of the work, it is not always able to separate materials correctly because of contamination in the materials themselves. One of the biggest issues for the recycling center, Otto said, is contamination of the various recyclables that come through the facility.

“It takes a considerable amount of time longer for our limited staff to sort through things when there is a high level of contamination,” Otto said.

Recyclables are considered contaminated when things such as dirty diapers or dead animals are in the recycling bins.

Bill Spiegel, K-State’s recycling supervisor, said convenience is key in getting students and faculty to participate in recycling.

Located straight north of Moore Hall in what was formerly known as the Wind Erosion Research Building, the K-State Recycling Center is open 24 hours per day so students and faculty can drop off recyclables.

Items that can be recycled at K-State’s facility include all plastics numbered one through seven, paper products and aluminum or tin cans. Cardboard and glass are accepted in separate bins.