An Interview with U-M Senior Vic Fong, Returnables Shelves Project Lead

I tend to think of myself as someone who’s in-the-know when it comes to sustainability efforts going on across U-M, but one project I had, up until recently, not known much about is the effort to pilot returnables shelves on landfill bins. I had seen the shelves popping up in a few different locations across Central Campus and wanted to know more. Thankfully, Vic Fong, a senior double majoring in Program in the Environment (PitE) and Economics reached out and said she would be happy to talk with me more about the project. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation so you can learn more about the project too and share about this effort with your networks. 

Blue returnables shelves on the outside of Diag landfill bins.
Blue returnables shelves on the outside of Diag landfill bins.

Kelly: Hi Vic! Thanks for taking a little time to talk with me today. Can you start by telling me a little about the returnables shelves and your role in the project? 

Vic: Of course! Thanks for highlighting the work. I’m a student intern working with Keith Soster, who is the Director of Student Engagement and Sustainability for Mdining. I’m actually the lead for the returnables shelves project this year. I started working on this over the summer, and the project has involved a lot of different kinds of work. We started by writing to the Exterior Elements Review Committee (EERC) to get approval for the project. That’s the body that approves what installations happen outside on campus spaces. The work has also included coordinating with the two student groups that are collaborating on the project. I also have monitoring shifts of the shelves. Every day, twice a day, someone checks the shelves to see if cans and bottles have been exchanged. Lastly, I’m involved in promotions of the project and making sure people know about the returnables shelves and to put their bottles and cans there. 

Kelly: Awesome! It’s always great experience to work with Keith and to see what it’s like to really implement a project on campus. Before we get too much further, we should clarify for those who don’t know: what are returnables?

Vic: Returnables are bottles and cans, typically beverage containers, that are recyclable and have a cash return value in the state of Michigan. Not all bottles and cans have a returnable value. For example water bottles do not have return value, so you’ll find “MI 10¢” printed on the ones that do have value. To receive the 10 cents, you must return the empty container to the store that sold the beverage or another store that sells that particular brand.

Kelly: And, what is the purpose of the returnables shelves? 

Vic: The goal of the shelves is two part. One aim is to divert recyclables from the landfill so that we increase recycling rates, and the other is to offer a cleaner, safer, and less-stigmatizing way to collect the cans for income without having to dig through the trash. There are now 5 shelves attached to landfill bins on Central Campus. And each one of those shelves, can hold up to 7 or 8 bottles and cans. 

Kelly: I really love how this is a win-win-win project! How did the original idea come about? 

Vic: Josh Davis, who is now an alum, was a student intern with Keith last year, and this was his project idea. He was inspired by similar shelves available in Copenhagen. He approached Keith with the idea to get his help on campus approvals, and also Keith was able to bring in others to collaborate on the project. For example, Keith proposed the idea as an ENVIRON 391 class project. And last winter term, between February and April, a group of students from that class looked at the effectiveness of the first 3 pilot shelves. They did things like tracking if placing a “starter” can on the shelf did anything to increase the exchange. They also did some data collection to determine how much students on campus knew about returnables or what the shelves are, and they found generally low awareness. 

Map of returnables shelves including the NW corner of the Diag, CCTC bus stop, Mason Hall N Entrance, the Diag near Mason Hall, and outside Shapiro Library.
Poster of where you can find the returnables shelves on central campus.

Kelly: Sustainability work always tends to have a lot of people involved and be highly collaborative, and this project doesn’t sound any different. Who all has contributed thus far?

Vic: You already know about Josh, Keith, and the ENVIRON 391 project team. I haven’t yet mentioned the staff from the Office of Campus Sustainability (OCS) and Grounds. Alison Richardson from OCS connected us with Ray Frye and Tom Rumple from Grounds. They are supporting our landfill bag audits. This allows us to collect data on if the shelves are being effective in diverting recyclables from the landfill bins. So far, we’ve done 2 audits, so we don’t have enough information to report on yet, but we’re excited about being able to in the future.

I also haven’t fully mentioned the two student groups yet, but the Capital Consulting Group project managers Allison Cui and Will Zhang, and BLUElab Metro project manager Owen McAlister Lopez have been collaborating with us as well. Owen and his team have been instrumental in collecting our daily monitoring data by volunteering to go around to each of the locations and count how many bottles/cans are on each of the shelves. Allison and Will’s team has been helping create amazing marketing and informational materials for us (such as posters showing the locations of the shelves around campus) , as well as brainstorming practical solutions (such as real-time weight sensors) for how to monitor during the winter months and without people physically checking in the long run. 

Kelly:  What sort of impact do you hope the project will have, and what’s next?

Vic: I do hope we can expand to more locations. For now, we are focusing on Central Campus, but longer term it would be nice to see if North Campus might be a good place to add shelves to maximize overall impact. Then more broadly, I hope our project reduces the campus’s landfill waste and promotes more awareness of recycling in general. Maybe it’s easier to just throw a bottle into the closest landfill bin, but essentially donating the bottle and its returnable value to someone who needs it, may motivate a lot of people to take the extra step.

Kelly: What have you learned through being involved in this project as a student intern? 

Vic: One important lesson I learned from this is not gatekeeping myself from sustainability because “I’m just a student.” In the past, I’ve tricked myself into thinking my contribution to the environment will come later when I have a job. But because of this project, I see that our shelves are already being used, and it’s never too early to start making a difference.

Kelly: I know you said part of your role this year was making people aware of the shelves and what they can do to support the project, so any last words on that?

Vic: We’ve been approved to have the 5 returnables shelves up across Central Campus through April 2024, and we did ask for the possibility to extend the pilot beyond that date if we find that it’s working well. So, I hope people will donate their empty bottles and cans with returnable value on the shelves. And I also hope that people will talk to their friends and classmates and spread the word about them so more people can participate.