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University of New Hampshire recycling push goes national

Every spring thousands of students at the University of New Hampshire pack up their dorm rooms and head home for the summer, throwing away lightly used items and any belongings that can't be squeezed into the trunk of their car.

UNH’s Trash 2 Treasure program is set up for its fall sale.
Source: Post-Landfill Action Network
UNH’s Trash 2 Treasure program is set up for its fall sale.

Lamps, kitchenware, futons, textbooks, chairs and floor rugs pile high in campus dumpsters, waiting to be carted off to the local junkyard. A few months later, students return, hauling carloads of newer versions of those same dorm room necessities.

Now one program's goal is to end that cycle.

"Trash 2 Treasure" is a student-led effort founded by UNH alum Alex Freid which aims to reduce waste on college campuses around the United States. The program collects usable items donated by outgoing students at the end of the spring semester, stores them over the summer and resells them to incoming students in the fall.

"On a fundamental level, waste is just resources in the wrong place," Freid told CNBC, explaining that his program has diverted more than 150 tons of waste at UNH since 2010.

The success of Trash 2 Treasure prompted Freid to establish the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), a national nonprofit and network of student leaders working to ensure that products are reused, repaired or recycled back into the marketplace.

Freid's program has saved UNH more than $12,000 in disposal costs and garnered $70,000 in revenue on that campus since its inception. Forty college campuses nationwide now participate in the initiative, but Freid hopes to double that number by 2016 and reach 500 participating colleges by 2020.

"On a fundamental level, waste is just resources in the wrong place." -Alex Freid, founder, Post-Landfill Action Network

While Freid's Trash 2 Treasure program has seen success in the last five years, not all recycling initiatives have had such luck. Outdated infrastructure, limited consumer education and increasing recycling costs have affected the effectiveness of green services nationwide.

"There isn't, for instance, composting available in all regions and all places in the world," said Catherine Sheehy, program manager at UL Environment, the sustainability unit of workplace safety firm UL. "There isn't even glass recycling in all regions around the world."

While single-stream recycling—where consumers put all their recyclables in a single container for someone else to sort—is the easiest way for consumers to dispose of reusable materials, it's not always the most effective.

Jim Fish, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Waste Management, has seen what Americans recycle, and it's not always pretty—toilet seats, bowling balls and deer carcasses are just a few of the nonrecyclable items that have graced the conveyor belts at Waste Management plants, he told CNBC.

The key to successful recycling is a behavioral shift, said Stephanie Barger, founder and executive director of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council.

"The problem is that there are a lot of myths out there that it costs money, that recycling doesn't work and that it's a lot of effort," Barger said.

While Fish said he agrees that consumers need to be better educated about green services, he argues that recycling has actually become less profitable for waste management companies.

"When you think about sustainability, it has to be a positive for the environment, but it also has to be a positive on the economic side," Fish said. "What's happened, and the reason that [Waste Management CEO David Steiner] has sounded the alarm a bit, is that while it is still a positive, obviously, on the environmental side, it has not been a positive on the economics side."

There is a broad spectrum of recycling processes from traditional methods to new techniques such as plasma arc waste disposal, which converts organic mater into a synthetic gas. However, Fish pointed out that often, the more "green" the process, the more it costs.

Despite the inverse cost curve of recycling, he doesn't think that it's a dead end—it's just a hurdle. "It's not unrealistic, but there is a heck of a lot of green between the putter and the cup," said Fish.