Waste audit offers valuable lessons in sustainability

by Tina Owen,

A student-organized event showed how the campus community could improve its recycling efforts.

  • A student wearing rubber gloves sorts trash on a tarp in Jackson Plaza.
  • Students wearing rubber gloves sort trash from recycling on a tarp in Jackson Plaza.

Standing in front of a large tarp stretched across Jackson Plaza, Ross Wheeler ’21 leaned down and snagged a half-full takeout container with the greasy remnants of someone’s lunch.

As he sorted through piles of trash, Wheeler felt grateful for the blue plastic gloves he wore during the waste audit organized by Willamette’s Sustainability Institute and the new Students for Sustainability group.

“Going through the trash was definitely kind of gross,” he says, “but we wanted to show campus community members how much of what they throw out isn’t actually trash.”

On April 20, Wheeler and other volunteers went through about 15 cubic feet — or two large rolling trash bins — of waste collected mainly from the University Center and Ford Hall. To demonstrate how much could be diverted from landfills, they sorted it into three piles on the tarp: recycling, compost and trash.

About half of what had originally been discarded as trash turned out to be material, such as paper, cardboard or food, that can be recycled or composted. The students also found non-recyclable items contaminating recycling containers.

“This shows there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to education around what can and should be recycled,” Wheeler says. “We hope the audit helped to change perceptions about being responsible with our waste and taking the time to ensure that things are disposed of or recycled correctly.”

Learn more about Willamette’s recycling guidelines.

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