New recycling coordinator on a mission to lessen UI’s trash footprint
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Beth MacKenzie joined the University of Iowa in September as the recycling coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, a branch of Facilities Management. She oversees and coordinates recycling operations across campus, including the UI’s involvement in Recyclemania, an annual competition to encourage higher-education institutions nationwide (and some in Canada) to recycle more.

MacKenzie previously served as the sustainability outreach and education coordinator for Brightside St. Louis, a nonprofit organization contracted by the city of St. Louis to plan and implement the city’s recycling education program.

Iowa Now visited with MacKenzie recently to find out how she’s settled into her role and what she hopes to accomplish.

 Tell us about your job.

Some people hear “recycling coordinator” and think of someone sifting through trash all day. Fortunately, that’s not the case—at least on most days. More often, I’m working with UI staff and students to develop education campaigns, enhance recycling infrastructure, and expand communication networks so that we can reach the university’s sustainability goal to divert at least 60 percent of our waste from the landfill by 2020. We already do a pretty good job—we’re currently diverting about 40 percent—but we still have a ways to go.

Christiansen to retire

Liz Christiansen portrait

Liz Christiansen recently announced she will retire as director of the UI Office of Sustainability, effective Feb. 15. Over the past eight years, Christiansen has developed and coordinated UI programs to enhance and enlarge the UI community’s understanding of sustainability from ecological, social, and financial perspectives. Read more…

Many people may not realize this, but recycling has really evolved into a behavioral science. Simple things, like the type of graphics used in signage, the language used in educational materials, and even the size, shape, and color of recycling bins can affect a recycling program’s success.

Another great aspect of my job is that I get to work with people in just about every department, every building, and every industry. Everyone creates waste, and it’s my job to help them manage it properly. This even trickles into the purchasing side of things. If we can work with vendors and contractors to reduce waste from the beginning, then there’s less waste we have to manage at the end.

What is Recyclemania?

It started in 2001 as a friendly competition between Ohio University and Miami University (also in Ohio) to see which school could recycle a higher percentage of waste. It has since grown into a national competition among colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada. I see it as a campaign to amplify our recycling efforts and get UI staff and students more involved in recycling. Plus, it opens up communication between campuses so that we can share ideas about how to reduce our landfill waste.

The national competition starts Feb. 5 and ends on April 1. Each week, I’ll submit our trash and recycling data, and we’ll see how well we’re doing compared to our peers.

How can students, faculty, and staff take part?

I know everyone has a lot on their plates these days, so I want to make it super easy and fun to participate. The competition is eight weeks long, and each week there will be a new theme and a corresponding checklist of recycling-related tasks or activities. If you complete just one item on that checklist, we will enter you into that week’s prize drawing. The more items you check off, the greater your chance to win. The one thing to remember is that you need to submit your checklist at the end of each week to be entered into the drawing. I’ll post the new checklist on the UI Recyclemania web pages each week.

I also thought it would be fun to have a competition among buildings on campus. When you submit your weekly checklist, there’s a box to enter the name of the building you spend the most time in. The building with the most submissions will host the RecyHawk Bragging Rights Trophy.

What’s the biggest challenge to recycling?

I think we need to overcome our obsession with trash. We put multiple trash cans everywhere. Even though at least half of what we typically throw away can be recycled, we surround ourselves with trash cans and then toss a recycling bin over in the corner. We must flip our thinking to prioritize recycling. We need to make recycling the norm and trash the anomaly.

This is the rationale behind the UI’s Tiny Trash program. We work with offices on campus to give up their desk-side trash cans in exchange for a tiny trash bin, which hangs on the side of a standard desk-side recycling bin. It really creates that visual cue reminding people that most waste is recyclable.

 What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done?

One thing I like to reminisce about is my time as a geology student at Augustana College (in Rock Island, Illinois). I had some amazing experiences, like floating down the Li River through the karst hills in China or hiking across the Grand Canyon. But my favorite experience was digging up fossils in the Badlands of South Dakota. If you’ve ever hunted for fossils, you know how frustrating it can be to walk for miles and not find a single decent fossil. So, after days of searching, I was ecstatic to find the intact skull of an oreodont, an extinct animal that lived about 30 million years ago. I’ve kept the skull all these years later, and it still thrills me to take it out of its case and imagine what the world was like when he or she roamed the Earth.

Anything else you’d like the campus community to know about you?

I would like everyone to know how happy I am to join the UI family. I’ve been here for only a few months, but it’s already proving to be one of the most welcoming, positive environments I’ve ever worked in. There’s a genuine camaraderie on campus, and it makes coming to work an enjoyable experience—even if I am sorting through a trash can.