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Vermont Climate Collaborative

Isham Street Students Get Recycling Relief

Isham Street students
Isham Street students (and Mayor Weinberger, right) test out their new 65-gallon recycling container, a solution for the house's overflowing recyclables. (Photo: Ben Sarle)

Champlain College sophomore Julien Fleming looked momentarily stricken. After answering a knock on his front door at 43 Isham Street, he had just been greeted by Bill Ward, who introduced himself as Burlington’s director of code enforcement. The title was fearful sounding, but Ward quickly dispatched the anxiety. There was nothing wrong; he was there to deliver a brand new, 65-gallon recycling tote to Fleming and his UVM housemates, which was standing tall on its two wheels on the sidewalk in front of the house.

Forty-three Isham was one of 14 rental houses on the street, which is at the heart of Burlington’s student neighborhood, to receive new totes in January free of charge. The complimentary totes were the brainchild of Gail Shampnois, director of UVM’s Student and Community Relations office, who conceived of the giveaway in partnership with members of ISGOOD, (for Isham Street Gardening and Other Optimistic Doings), an Isham Street neighborhood group.

They’re meant to address an issue that’s endemic to Burlington neighborhoods with a high percentage of multi-tenant rental properties, usually occupied by students: cardboard, paper, cans and plastic containers that come loose on recycling day from small, overstuffed blue recycling bins, covering streets, sidewalks, and front yards with debris.

“Wind will blow the recyclables out of the bins on the morning of recycling day, and trash ends up all over the street,” said Isham Street resident and ISGOOD co-founder Brian Cina, a musician and social worker.   

Shampnois, who organizes student neighborhood cleanups every year, had seen the problem first hand. But she learned just how vexing it was to non-student residents in a meeting with members of ISGOOD at the start of the school year. Recycling-spawned litter was one of the top issues the group hoped UVM could help them address.

Stifling criticism

Shampnois confirmed her hunch that the problem wasn’t student carelessness; in September, she made welcome visits to student-occupied buildings on Isham Street with Phil Hammerslough, ISGOOD’s other co-founder. When they spoke with students in a house with piles of litter in the front yard, Shampnois and Hammerslaugh stifled the urge to be critical and instead asked if the students’ one blue bin was adequate to handle their recycling needs.

“All of them said, ‘No, there are so many of us here, and it’s too small,’” she said. The blue bins have only a 15-gallon capacity.

“College students are environmentally conscious; they are trying to do the right thing,” said Ward, who regularly visits student neighborhoods to make sure landlords keep their rental properties up to snuff. “To not give them the proper size containers, you’re really doing a disservice.” 

Shampnois set to work finding resources to purchase larger capacity bins for the students. She knew the Burlington Department of Public Works had acquired a number of large recycling totes, in partnership with Chittenden County Solid Waste District. Thanks to the Waste District’s 30 percent contribution to the purchase price, the city was able to sell the totes at discount.

She raised the issue at a meeting of UVM’s Strategic Operations Group, and group member Joe Speidel, who directs Burlington city relations for UVM, said he had a small budget for projects like this one.

Speidel and Shampnois eventually bought 14 totes. If the program succeeds in reducing litter on Isham Street and she can find more funds, Shampnois hopes to expand it to Buell and Bradley Street in the future. The key to city-wide expansion, said Ward, who delivered all the totes to Isham Street, will be to get landlords to sign on and routinely purchase them. If the Isham Street pilot is effective, that will help the cause, he said. The discounted totes cost less than $50 each. 

The 43 Isham Street delivery, one of the last, demonstrated the city's support for UVM's initiative and for more widespread distribution of the totes. On hand to note the event was Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger.

The tote project could spawn other city-university cooperative projects addressing quality of life issues, Speidel said, who regularly works with Carina Driscoll in the Mayor's Office. The city and the university are working together to identify other resources to develop and pursue these initiatives.

Cina said he was grateful for the efforts to give students better ways to manage their waste. “It's another step in the right direction, so that we can change the culture of our block from a place where people just come to party without regard to their surroundings to an actual community,” he said.

For Fleming’s roommate Rex Craft, a junior business major at UVM, 43 Isham’s new tote will provide welcome relief. The house had so many recyclables, it was impossible to go the full week between recycling pick-ups without taking extra measures. “We had to take all our cans in garbage bags to the dump, because there was a lot of buildup with all of us in the house,” he said. “This was a nice little surprise.”

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