On the morning of Wednesday, March 29, I woke up brimming with excitement. I quickly brushed my teeth, ate breakfast and donned a red long-sleeved shirt reading “#mystudentcenter.” I raced to work on my bike, undeterred by the looming thunderstorm, and made the final preparations with my one co-worker who had been brave enough (and whose schedule had allowed) to join in this endeavor. We made our way to the Student Center, where we would find waiting for us two intrepid volunteers and 37 pounds of fresh garbage. Why was I excited? Because some of that 37 pounds was recycling, and we were about to find out exactly how much.
When the Student Center opened in January 2015, while I marveled at the new facilities and amenities, I also lamented the lack of a formal recycling program. Eventually, 22 months later, one was finally implemented. And on this cloudy, thundering Wednesday morning, we were about to find out firsthand how well it was working.
We sorted the contents of six bags of trash and six bags of recycling. While the trash stream overall had mostly trash and food waste, we did find recyclable food and beverage containers (11.02 percent overall) as well. We also found several unopened packets of ketchup and clean napkins inside both streams. The recycling stream contained an unusually large amount of food scraps (32.7 percent overall) and trash (22.9 percent). Overall, these took up more than half of the recycling stream contents. Only 34.6 percent of the contents were recyclable materials.
While these results may appear disappointing, I found them to be very educational. We now know where we need to improve, and we also uncovered areas where we can expand our waste diversion efforts beyond simply recycling. Take, for example, the large amounts of food waste we uncovered in both the trash and recycling streams. A composting program, together with an education campaign encouraging students, faculty and staff to save their leftovers (including unused condiments and napkins), could help to dramatically reduce that waste output. We have a better idea of what contaminants to target in educating people about proper waste disposal, and we know now that we need to step up our efforts in explaining to people what’s recyclable and what isn’t.
As an institution of higher learning, we are in a unique position to not only generate groundbreaking research but also to turn that research into action. Going to college is a transformative experience, and forming habitual sustainable behaviors should be a part of that experience. As our audit revealed, UH still has some work to do, but I can rest a little easier knowing that we’re headed in the right direction.
-By Nikhil Schneider