Rice Recycling Center: A Sustainable Student Start-Up

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Geneva Vest

Over the years, Rice University has cultivated an entrepreneurial spirit amongst the student body by crafting the campus to be a living laboratory for student projects. Nowhere is this more evident than in recycling. Before Rice’s facilities department managed on-campus recycling, the entire process started as a student-run business in 1972, making it one of the earliest higher education recycling programs in the country. Over 40 years ago, Duane Marks ’74, Craig Collins ’73, Sue Woodson ’75, and Bonnie Hoskins ’74 collaborated with the Rice administration to construct and maintain the Rice Recycling Center-- a site where newspaper, glass, aluminum, and steel cans were delivered from residential colleges and the surrounding community (Figure 1).

Figure 1) In November of 1972, Student Association President Leighton Read ‘73 addresses an audience that includes President Norman Hackerman (served 1970-1985) during the Rice Recycling Center’s inauguration. Photo: inauguration. timeline.centennial.rice.edu

What does a recycling start-up look like?

In the beginning, the Center was located on an unpaved road where Reckling Park now stands. Jim Blackburn ‘73, a graduate student during the Center’s opening and currently a Professor in Practice for the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, describes the Center as being “small…sort of lonely [with] just a few bins out there.” No matter its aesthetic, the Center served as headquarters for the ecologically minded. The camaraderie and grassroots action at the time of the Center’s opening were invigorating. Its early years coincided with a wave of environmentalism in which the federal government released several unprecedented environmental legislative acts in response to a cultural shift in the country. “All of us were worried about the environment,” says Blackburn.

Every weekend, a crew of students piled into a pickup truck borrowed from Facilities & Engineering (F&E) to collect newspaper, glass, aluminum, and steel cans from bins at each residential college. Additionally, the Center was open 24/7 for anyone in the area hoping to contribute to its mounds of material. Student workers sorted through the accumulated debris, organizing chaos into a marketable stack of goods. The recyclables were then sold to local factories at a fixed rate per pound to be incorporated into manufactured products. The profit from recyclables was then processed by the Campus Business Office and ultimately returned to the Center in the form of renovations, technical capital, and maybe the occasional kegger. In exchange for their efforts, the students received federal work-study wages of $2.50 per hour (nearly $14.50 when adjusted for inflation) from the Office of Financial Aid.

Before even opening the Center’s doors, its founders made enough money ($50) to buy a can crusher that President Hackerman officially inaugurated himself (Figure 2). By July 1976 the Center could afford to invest in a Ford 100 truck for $4,300. That following July, the Rice Administration moved the Center to a location between Jake Hess Stadium and the Rice Media Center. This upgrade in space and location cost the business $5,400, which fit nicely within that year’s $6,000 profit. University administration certainly took notice of the Center’s success, too. In the Center’s 1977 financial report, President Hackerman’s office pointed out the Center’s “very good income” (Figure 3).

Figure 2) President Hackerman tries his hand at can crushing during the Center’s opening ceremony. Photo: Woodson Center

Figure 3) Rice Recycling Center’s 1977 financial report. Photo: President’s Office Records

Just a couple of ‘young capitalists’

These days we consider recycling to be a ubiquitous environmental effort; at Rice, however, it started as an experiment in economics. The founding group of students was not motivated purely by environmentalism, but additionally by the desire to “demonstrate that recycling can be a sound business venture.”

In fact, money was the primary motivator for most workers at the Center. Marks explained in a later interview with the Thresher that his efforts to establish recycling were “a good thing to do,” but of course added that “we made some money, too.” Tony Palmer ‘80, a manager of the Center from 1978-1980, corroborated this message. “It was a job,” he said apologetically, adding that he was “sorry to say it wasn’t a passion” for him or most of his co-workers.

Regardless of intention, the Center was hugely successful. A financial report from 1976 documents the 405,000 pounds of material recycled and $4,633 in profits that year (Figure 4). By 1977, the Center handled over 800,000 pounds of materials and made $10,000-15,000 in the process, according to the Center’s manager Noel Shenoi ‘78. That is an amazing 400 tons of materials diverted from the landfill.

Figure 4) The Center’s source of income by material for 1976. Photo: President’s Office Records

Rice Recycling Center’s reception

The Rice Recycling Center was strongly shaped by campus, local, and even global forces that supported and stifled its progress. The early years of the Center were a political and bureaucratic fight for its establishment. Paying recycling volunteers with work-study wages was a controversial proposal in the 1972-73 Student Association but, according to the Center’s founders, was central in proving that recycling was a feasible business venture. The Center won the argument and, by 1975, employed nine people paid by Rice work-study.

Rice F&E proved to be a bit of a headache for the Center. Access to Rice’s resources such as the F&E truck and the Center’s location on the unpaved road became tenuous. Records between the Center’s manager and administration suggest there were a few miscommunications. One Thresher article sympathizes with the Center’s 1977 manager, Noel Shenoi, who headed into work one July morning to find the Center inaccessible amongst the construction of the new baseball stadium. Unbeknownst to the students, the Center was destined for relocation by F&E that summer. Acting quickly, Shenoi presented a relocation proposal to President Hackerman for a new building along Stockton Street. Shenoi received a $5,400 interest-free loan for the second Rice Recycling Center facility (Figure 5) which opened the following semester.

Figure 5) The second Rice Recycling Center on Stockton Street in 1979. Photo: Rice Thresher

In a later interview with the Thresher, Marks jokes that “the University didn’t want us getting rich” from recycling and wonders “if they didn’t want us to learn to be young capitalists or what.” Palmer, who served as manager six years after Marks, describes the Center’s relationship with Rice’s administration as generally hands-off and supportive, so long as the recyclables did not spill outside the Center’s fence.

Overwhelmingly, several parties admired the Rice Recycling Center, including President Hackerman. In 1980, he politely declined the Houston Clean City Commission’s request for involvement in campus recycling. “Rice Recycling Center has attracted some national attention for its activities,” writes Hackerman to Houston Clean City Commission, and for that “we are proud of our commitment in this facet of solid waste management.” Other accolades came from organizations such as The League of Women Voters of Texas and the Sierra Club of America. Additionally, the Center was touted by both the Houston Post and The Thresher as a pioneer in financially-responsible recycling. According to one article, the Center was so successful that the City of Houston hired Marks, one of the founders, to start Houston’s own public recycling program.

The Center was perhaps most valued at the community level. President Hackerman received a letter from the Southgate Civic Club, representing a neighborhood immediately south of campus, expressing their appreciation “for the sensitivity and swift action taken...with regard to the relocation of [the] Recycling Center” in 1977. Palmer was amazed, if not a little baffled, by the array of people who would bring truckloads of newspaper, tires, and even the occasional car bumper to the Center. He believed that the cause for the Center’s success must have been these “ecologically-minded people” from the communities surrounding Rice.

Despite its national acclaim, the Rice Recycling Center gained the least traction on its very own campus. There were recycling bins in each of the college commons, but the quantity in these full bins paled in comparison to the offerings of the Houston community. Palmer called for stronger “support from the individual colleges” in an interview with the Thresher but felt that “just not enough people know we’re here.”

Institutionalizing Recycling

When the operation eventually fizzled out in April 1981, it was not for want of participants but rather a loss of purchasers. Sunset Fibers Industries discontinued their decade-long relationship with the Center after Mexico passed an embargo against transcontinental rail travel. This shocked the market for recycled newspaper--the Center’s largest source of income--leaving Rice with literally tons of newspaper and nowhere to send it. The Center closed its doors in 1981 but environmentalists continued offering their recyclables to the fence line of the Center for months after.

This grand experiment in capitalism ultimately came to an end because of global forces. However, the Center sparked an interest in recycling at Rice and in the Houston community which evolved into other recycling programs. Over the next decade and a half, recycling was handled by students on a smaller scale. In 1995, Facilities, Engineering & Planning (FE&P) institutionalized campus recycling, making it an official campus service.

While recycling is more efficient with FE&P oversight, students and faculty alike feel a need for stronger student involvement. Eusebio Franco, Director of Custodial and Grounds Services, has reflected on this conundrum for years. He takes extensive measures in greening the campus (recycling has risen to 30% of all solid waste in recent years) and has committed to “recycling [even] when it cost us money.” In addition to these efforts, Franco believes recycling can qualitatively improve through stronger student involvement such as student input and campus-wide promotion of recycling.

Palmer shares this sentimentality. He understands that Rice students have “more fun things to do than trucking around newspaper” these days, but reflects on countless invaluable experiences in getting his hands dirty and managing a student run business. The Center not only “provided jobs for students,” says Palmer, but “running it was good for me, too.” Indeed, participating in the business of recycling from start to finish--and making adjustments along the way--was a unique lesson for those students involved--one that current Rice students can benefit from learning.

All information and photos of the Rice Recycling Center were gathered from archived Thresher articles, records at the Woodson Research Center, and personal interviews. A special thanks is in order to the Woodson Research Center for their organization of and enthusiasm for Rice history--characteristics I hope transferred in writing this article. I would also like to thank Jim Blackburn, Eusebio Franco, and Tony Palmer for their time and memories shared with me in piecing together the origins of recycling at Rice.