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‘Reverse’ vending machines to be placed on Tampa, St. Pete campuses to promote recycling

Feed-A-Bull Food Pantry and Coca-Cola are working together to recycle select cans and bottles at USF while donating money to support the pantry’s efforts to feed students on campus. UNSPLASH/Brett Jordan

The university is enhancing its sustainability efforts across campuses by installing six recycling machines for plastic bottles and aluminum cans while supporting Feed-A-Bull Food Pantry.

The “reverse” vending machines work toward fulfilling one of Coca-Cola’s “World Without Waste” initiatives to collect and recycle every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030. For each aluminum can or plastic bottle, Coca-Cola will donate 5 cents to the pantry, up to $5,000 per year, according to Auxiliary Services Director Nancy Santiago. 

At the end of the year, the total funds collected from the recycled cans and bottles will be donated to the pantry.

Each vending machine will take any empty can or plastic bottle, regardless of brand. It will then evaluate if it meets its standards and, if accepted, it will crush it and store it inside.

“Whether it’s an aluminum can or plastic bottle, and it’s empty, it’ll accept it, and anything that gets accepted into the machine will get the 5 cents,” Santiago said. “It’ll spit out anything that does not meet the requirement so if you’ve tried to put in a glass bottle, it’ll reject it or something else that doesn’t fit the criteria for it to be recycled.”

While the recycling process can be lengthy, the machines will include instructions on how to recycle each can or bottle and explain how the process works.

“All it requires is to have an empty product,” Santiago said. “It doesn’t have to be cleaned out, it just has to be empty for the machine to be able to go ahead and recycle it.”

The idea behind the reverse vending machines came under the university’s new contract with Coca-Cola, in which it proposed the sustainability initiative, which is fully funded by Coca-Cola. It’s still in its planning stages and is set to roll out in the spring semester.

“We’re still working with Coke on the design for the wrapping of machines, and then we’re working with the building managers on placement so we may have a soft launch at the end of fall, but our goal is to really go live for spring 2022,” Santiago said.

The machines will be placed “strategically,” with four on the Tampa campus and two at St. Pete. Locations are yet to be determined, but Santiago said the machines will most likely be in high-traffic areas, including the Marshall Student Center in Tampa and the University Student Center in St. Pete.

“We’re still working with building managers and logistics on where exactly to place them, but we’re looking at different areas like housing [and] residential areas. Potentially the student unions and locations that tend to be high-traffic areas where students can easily access or recycle the products,” Santiago said.

Due to low demand and traffic at the Sarasota-Manatee campus, Santiago said no machines will be installed there. In future semesters, however, she said the university could revisit the idea and, based on the project’s success, bring it to Sarasota-Manatee.

The maximum capacity for each machine, Santiago said, is still unknown. She expects to have a better idea once the initiative rolls out.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know how the community will react to these machines,” Santiago said. “We’re hoping to be as proactive in our marketing and communications, partnering with student orgs and [Student Government] to get the word out. But our goal is to get as many products donated as possible.”

Every month, Auxiliary Services Assistant Director Mercedes Cesin said, a report will be written specifying how many products were recycled, along with the performance of each location. All accumulated recycled bottles and cans will be collected on a regular basis by Coca-Cola’s subcontractor, Atlas, which also provides reports on the number of materials donated and how they get recycled.

“[Monthly reports will allow us to] monitor the number of bottles and the funds that we’re able to get because we really want to make sure that we’re able to collect the full $5,000,” Cesin said. “If we monitor this amount on a monthly basis, we’re able to keep track of how we’re doing.”

Feed-A-Bull was chosen by students through an SG survey between July and August as the philanthropy cause to receive the funds, according to Student Body Vice President Jillian Wilson.

“I think we all try to do our best to recycle in general, but then if you’re able to recycle and also give back to a USF charity where students can get food, it’s even more of a bonus,” Wilson said.

The pantry received the most votes among other entities including Moffitt Cancer Center, Shriners Healthcare for Children, the USF SG Green and Gold Scholarship, the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and United Way Suncoast. 

Cesin said USF is the second university in Florida to test the reverse machines, the first being UCF. She said USF’s commitment to sustainability over the years attracted Coca-Cola’s interest in bringing the initiative to campus.

“We’re very unique and fortunate to have this many machines. [Coca-Cola] sees that USF is known for [its] recycling and for the sustainability actions and so they really wanted to have us come on board because they could see the impact on having these machines on campus,” Cesin said.

For future semesters, Santiago said Auxiliary Services will consider adding card readers to build programming around competitions where students can accumulate points and incentivize recycling campuswide. While the idea will take time, she said the university will rely on student organizations and other campus departments to spread the word.

“We are looking forward to [partnering] with student organizations, housing and everybody else so that we can drive students to actually do campaigns and donate and recycle so that we can get this donation for the food pantry,” Cesin said.

The sustainability efforts, while educating students on the advantages of recycling, also will contribute to the university’s efforts to reduce trash collected, according to Cesin.

“[The university won’t] have 5,000 bottles going into trash cans,”Cesin said. “They’ll go into this machine that collapses them and then it can be recycled so it saves time and money for university facilities to reduce the amount of trash that gets collected.”