Location: Bowdoin / Sustainability / Activity / 2011 / One Man's Trash...

Annual Trash Audit Leads to Campus-wide Recycling Campaign

Story posted November 10, 2011

The Bowdoin College EcoReps recently conducted a trash audit of the eight first-year dorms. The goal was to sort through three or four bags of trash from each dorm to see if recyclables were going into the dumpster. The trash audit is an annual event sponsored by the EcoReps and the results were particularly striking this year.

In past years, trash audits have produced a variety of results, include the revelation that some residence halls had significantly higher rates of “could-be” recyclables compared to others. It’s always a bit of a show as the EcoReps, wearing haz-mat suits and goggles, sort through the debris in front of the Polar Bear while students stroll by between classes. One goal of the trash audit is to simply raise awareness about recycling on campus — there’s nothing like opening more thaan 30 bags of trash on the Quad to get attention! However, this year there was one trend that permeated all of the dorms, regardless of the actual percentage of recycling that ended up in the trash.

The EcoReps found that most of the recyclable material found in the trash was from To-Go/Express/Fast Track meals —cardboard "hot food" containers, empty yogurt cups and milk bottles, soda cans, and even the paper bags. All of these things are, indeed, recyclable. Even more concerning is that much of the trash itself (not the recyclable part) also came from express meals. Many uneaten sandwiches, fruit, full bags of chips and un-opened yogurts were easy to find in the garbage, leading the EcoReps to believe people might be taking more food than they actually needed. This was a red flag for the EcoReps who decided it was time to take action.

And so launched Sustainable Bowdoin’s latest campaign to reduce express meal waste: “Don’t be a drag, recycle that bag!”

A little background on recycling at Bowdoin: we use the “Zero-Sort” system (formerly known to students as “single-stream”) in which basically anything recyclable can go into one can. These bags of mixed recycling are taken to state-of-the-art recycling facilities where they are sorted and then redistributed as recycled material. It is, undoubtedly, the easiest way possible for students to recycle. It all goes in one place.

Why, then, are we sending so much recyclable material to the Brunswick landfill every month? Recycling is cheaper than wasting: Bowdoin pays $80 per ton to remove trash, and only $9 per ton of recycling. Hold, on, let’s revisit that statistic: it is nearly nine times more expensive to throw away your empty salad container than to recycle it. So, what’s the deal?

The EcoReps cannot say for sure why Bowdoin students are behaving the way they are, but they suspect people just don't know what items can go into the Zero-Sort system — and they're ready to change that. Sustainable Bowdoin, partnering with the Green Bowdoin Alliance, will begin educating the Bowdoin population on Express Meal recycling as the semester winds down. They plan to bring the campaign in full force next spring, and end the campaign with another trash audit in April to see if student behavior has changed.

The campaign includes general visual media, like posters and table tents, but has a special aspect: a week of direct consumer outreach — one advocacy sticker on each of the more than 2,500 bag lunches Dining distributes each week. The poster and sticker were designed by Maggie Williams '12, who was the mastermind behind Bowdoin’s latest digital media campaign for Carbon Neutrality by 2020.

The EcoReps hope to create general awareness about recycling, but also to clear up some long-standing questions like:

  • Greasy pizza boxes, yay or nay? Yay! 
  • Yogurt and other food containers with a little left inside — can I recycle it if I don’t rinse it? Yes! The rule is that if 2% or less of the original volume of the container is still inside, it is recyclable (peanut butter stuck to the upper insides of the jar is OK).
  • The thick pub take-out boxes with the wax sheet inside? As long as you dump out all the food, absolutely yes, recycle it!

These and other questions about other contentious recycling items are on the EcoReps’ target list. Look for more to come from the Bag Lunch Recycling Campaign.

Who knew a little trash sorting would go such a long way? Remember: Don’t be a drag, recycle that bag!

Bowdoin pays $80 per ton to remove trash, and only $9 per ton of recycling! Hold, on, let’s revisit that statistic: it is nearly NINE TIMES more expensive to throw away your empty salad container than to recycle it! So what’s the deal?