Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

Sustainability & ME: What we found in your Trash

Posted on April 12, 2016 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

Author: Megan Pryor

On February 9, our Solid Waste Planning and Policy class was greeted by heaps of plastic trash and recycling bags on the floor of the classroom. The stench that also greeted us grew more intense as we tore into the bags, dumping the contents onto a plastic-wrapped table. We grabbed long metal tongs and rubber gloves. Then, armed with protective smears of Vicks Vapo rub under our noses, we set to work, digging through piles of soggy pizza crusts, moldy fruit cups, candy bar wrappers, chip bags, used paper towels, sanitary napkins, and q-tips.

It wasn’t pretty, but this meticulous process, known as a Waste Characterization, serves a purpose: it’s a policy-making tool that provides insight into what people are throwing away much more accurately than any survey can. So what did we find in one day’s worth of garbage and recycling from a residential dorm hall in Gorham?

Our findings were pretty grim. More than 40 percent of the trash was recyclable.  There was also a lot of usable stuff – a brand-new sports bra, a new reusable razor, and several energy bars still in their packaging. On the bright side, most of the stuff people threw in the recycling really was recyclable, with a “residue rate” or average percentage of non-recyclable items in the recycling of only 4 percent by weight (6 percent by volume). The total recovery rate for recyclables was 25 percent by weight (29 percent by volume). In other words, about 75 percent of the recyclables wound up in the trash.

According to USM’s Resource Recovery Supervisor, Steve Sweeney, our waste characterization was right on par with what previous characterizations have turned up. He notes that USM’s recycling rate went from 34% (the national average) in 2011 to “between 49% and 59%.” However, he also notes that more effort from students and staff could drastically improve that rate to “between 75 percent and 85 percent.”

Plus, if the environmental incentives aren’t enough, Sweeney points out that Facilities Management’s “costs went down from $58,000 to just under $20,000 annually” as recycling increased.

He explained that the “dorms, athletic events, and conferences” are the biggest challenges to improving recycling rates, but while the public can be educated, dorm residents should already know what to do. The answers Sweeney has been asking himself are the same ones that came up in our classroom as we mourned the perfectly good sports bra and loads of recyclables buried in the trash. “Is it that they don’t know or don’t care? How do we increase awareness? How do we increase caring?” Well, to quote from Dr. Suess’ The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”