Trash Money

Marchella Verdi
April 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Let’s face it, with finals around the corner most, if not all, students will be lining up at the many Penn State coffee shops, hoping to stay awake after many long nights of cramming. While people love that morning cup of joe, for college students, coffee in the morning or multiple times a day does some serious damage to their bank accounts. 

But what if there were a way to save money — and help the planet, too — and still get your daily dose of energy?

There is: Penn State provides a 25-cent discount for using a reusable cup at Housing and Food Service locations, including Au Bon Pain, Saxby’s and the HUB Bookstore café. Even better, all hot beverages, fancy coffee included, are discounted with a reusable cup. 

Lydia Vandenbergh, associate director of employee engagement and education at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, touts the benefits of reusable cups and hopes the campus community will begin using them more frequently.

“Not only do reusable cups keep your java hot longer, but in most cases, travel mugs don't leak like paper ones can,” she notes. “It's a great way to save money and keep your coffee safe and hot for longer.”

Coffee cups might seem like a trivial issue, but they’re actually part of a much bigger picture Penn State is currently reviewing: waste and recycling. For example, many people think disposable single-use hot cups are made out of paper. But they are actually made of a blend of paper and plastic that cannot be recycled in central Pennsylvania. This is causing major problems for the campus because many consumers mistakenly try to recycle them. 

Confusion around what to recycle at Penn State has led to some serious problems, like the contamination of waste streams with inappropriate items, making it harder for the University to find markets for recycled goods and increasing the likelihood that potentially reusable materials end up being put in the landfill instead. For some waste streams, like compost and miscellaneous plastics, there is a greater than 30 percent contamination rate.

In an effort to improve Penn State's waste efforts, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business David Gray created a task force in the spring of 2018, comprised of members from across the University. The task force has now developed a host of short- and long-term recommendations for Penn State’s materials procurement, use and disposal — viewable at this website — and is seeking feedback this week from the University community. 

There are several ways students, faculty and staff can offer their input: 

  • Attend a campus-wide community discussion, scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, in 233 HUB-Robeson Center, either in-person or via Zoom
  • Ask a question for the community discussion, or suggest ideas via the website

Meantime, even as revisions to the University’s waste management systems are still ongoing, people can already start doing their part today. 

Penn State is filled with sustainability champions helping reduce the Nittany Lion impact on the planet. For example, Jim Voltz and David Day, janitorial staff members at Penn State Law, noticed how frequently coffee cups were incorrectly disposed of in recycling bins. Their observations helped initiate a trial at the Katz Building with new signage posted above central sorting stations to help students, staff and faculty understand that single-use cups belong in the trash, not recycling. Since the start of the trial, the number of incorrectly sorted coffee cups has significantly diminished. 

Do you have other observations of ways Penn State can manage its waste better? Speak up and get involved through the community discussion and/or the website at

Last Updated April 19, 2019