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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 7, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 39
Your Trash, His Treasure

The paper compactor is one of the many additions Richard Abraham brought to the Homewood campus, which now recycles about 40 tons of waste a month.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Old newspapers, dead batteries — new recycling czar loves them all

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Richard Abraham wants your paper. Faxes, newspapers, magazines, doesn't matter, he'll take all of it. While you're at it, have any toner cartridges or batteries to unload?

Since May 2007, Abraham has been Homewood's manager of recycling and solid waste. The enthusiastic Washington, D.C., native has made quite an impact.

In his first full year on the job, Abraham has helped significantly increase the university's recycling rate, amount of materials recycled and revenues generated from these products. While no recycling data exist prior to Abraham's arrival, he estimates that there's been a 25 percent to 30 percent increase over the past year in the amount the campus recycles.

Abraham took over a recycling program that existed in a state of limbo and needed a jump- start. JHU was collecting products like paper, bottles and cardboard, but the program had been languishing, in part due to a nine-month vacancy in the recycling coordinator's position.

In stepped Abraham, a man with more than 25 years of experience in the recycling industry. From the moment he arrived, the day after Commencement, Abraham knew that changes needed to be made.

"The program was in poor shape," he said. "Quite simply, there was nobody in charge of the department, so those who did the collecting arranged all the pickups and moved all the material."

Collecting, he said, isn't easy. Most Homewood buildings do not have loading docks on which to consolidate waste, so trash and items set out for recycling have to be individually removed from the buildings. With a relatively small staff, the work was time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Abraham also thought the collection system was outdated and that the university was not getting the best deal on what it recycled. For example, the paper products collected were being sorted since white paper had previously been considered the only type of value; the other paper was mostly discarded.

"Gradually, times change," he said. "Today, you can recycle all of it. You can bundle up all the paper and sell it as a mixed package, or do the labor and separate it out yourself to maximize your return."

Abraham knows his paper. He started his career in metal recycling but soon after moved into the paper business because it was "cleaner and neater" compared to dealing with steel from bridges or automobiles.

Until joining Johns Hopkins, Abraham worked in the public sector. He admits that, aside from his days as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, he was unfamiliar with the college setting.

"It was a bit of a learning experience for me the past year," he said. "As everyone knows, Johns Hopkins is a decentralized institution, so you have to work around that. In my favor, recycling is second nature to me now. I know how to do it and what needs to be done."

He first purchased two compactors, one placed behind the old Carnegie Institution building for paper and one behind Bloomberg Hall for trash. He also eliminated three trash containers that he felt were underused and were being emptied weekly whether full or not. Like the trash bins, recycling bins were emptied weekly, no matter how little was in them.

"I felt that was a waste of time and money," he said.

The compactors made an instant impact and paid for themselves within nine months, Abraham said. Compactors hold a lot more material than containers — the paper compactor can hold nearly seven tons — and are emptied only when full. "Now our [recycling] vendor only has to come on average twice a month. They haul it out and send it to the mill. It's a much more efficient system," he said.

To address the collection issues, Abraham purchased "toters," large plastic containers that he plans to put in all the Homewood buildings. Compared to the plastic bags previously used, the toters (gray for trash and blue for recycling) hold more, are easier to transport and work seamlessly with the compactors. To date, nearly 30 percent of Homewood buildings have been outfitted with the toters. He also hired several students to augment the three-person, full-time collection team. Some told him Johns Hopkins students would not want such a position. He proved them wrong when dozens applied for the job.

Homewood's recycling program was launched in June 1996 to decrease waste generation and handle waste materials in the most sensible and environmentally safe manner possible. It currently accepts paper, cardboard, cans, bottles, batteries, toner cartridges, fluorescent light bulbs, plastics, metals and electronics, anything from cell phones to computers.

Abraham and his staff recycle on average 27 to 30 tons of paper a month; 10 tons of glass, plastic, aluminum and other metal; and two to four tons of electronics. Most of the material comes from Homewood, but Abraham has accepted materials from other campuses and community sources.

The Homewood campus currently produces 115 tons of trash a month with a recycling rate of 27 percent, an average figure for a university its size.

He said he's pleased with the progress, but not satisfied.

"We can do better, and we will," he said.

He wants JHU's recycling rate in the area of 40 percent to 50 percent within the next two years, with a long-term goal of zero waste.

Abraham also has his sights set on a much better showing in next year's RecycleMania, an annual 10-week competition hosted by the National Recycling Coalition that has U.S. colleges and universities competing against each other to reduce and recycle the most waste from their campuses.

Johns Hopkins participated in the competition for the first time this past year and finished 24th out of 61 schools in the Partial Campus-Gorilla (cumulative recycled pounds) category and 17th out of 57 in the Partial Campus-Paper category.

In the future, Abraham has top-10 finishes in mind.

For more information on JHU Recycling, go to


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