Taking care of the earth can be, well, expensive: How do you get around the costs of going green?

I work for an educational institution that would love to “go green.” We have a great sustainability center and many ideas for what we could do to reduce our impact on the earth. We have many ideas, but we also have one problem–doing the right thing gets difficult really quickly.

Example: This year, some colleagues and I tried to introduce single-stream recycling into our campus’ residence halls. We were very excited about this, as we felt it would make things simple for students (no separating materials!) and ease many new students into recycling for the first time. We did not foresee how hard it really is to change people’s behavior. The single stream program was anything but a success, even as we tried harder and pushed stronger with marketing. We even had a year opening barbecue dedicated to sustainability in the residence halls, but recycling participation rates have  gotten more and more dismal.

What’s more, some staff members started turning against recycling. After all, it cost us three times as much to recycle as it would have cost us to ship the same items to the landfill. Those are startling numbers indeed. We were suddenly faced with a poor economy and the question “Do we abandon what’s right? Can we afford what’s right?”

It is a very sad situation when it becomes so costly to do what’s right. Not only does the program physically cost more, but it costs employee time to sort the contaminates out of the mix, and as they say, time is money.

However, we were not willing to give up this fight. Some leaders of this project have done some research and found ways to reduce cost while still making the program simple to students. Instead of trying to do single stream, which was actually more complicated for many students and costly to us, we will be offering recycling on a hall-by-hall basis for papers and plastics. This means halls have to opt in and have a recycling chair. Our own staff members will collect and separate the recyclables, which will erase the cost that the city would charge. Hopefully this new solution will work, but the situation just goes to show how complicated so many issues are. I am glad I have a team of people by my side that is committed to doing the right thing, however.

In a similar sticky situation? Here are some tips that I would suggest before abandoning your project all together:

1. Search for alternatives to the way that you are currently trying to do things. A really great tool would be to visit other organizations and see how they are battling the same issue. You can often find great ideas if not practices to duplicate.

2. Look for grants to help you get started. Not all businesses or organizations can afford to go green on their own. If you come up with a great idea and an action plan however, there is a chance that you can get someone else to help fun your project.

3. If all else fails, perhaps you should explore other ways your business or organization can go green that make more sense for your budget and goals.


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