Poor trash audit results prompt changes in recycling policy

by Allison Hagan / Beacon Staff • January 21, 2016

1453359162  .jpg
A recycling room in The Paramount Center.
A recycling room in The Paramount Center.

From the compost bins in the Dining Hall to the absence of plastic water bottles at The Max Cafe, Emerson appears to be a notably green institution. The results, however, of the college’s first waste and recycling audit conducted in November, say otherwise—46 percent of contents in trash bags on campus were recyclable materials.

The trash audit was suggested by Amy Elvidge, the college’s new sustainability coordinator, and carried out with the help of a representative from the waste hauling company Save That Stuff, Inc., and two Emerson EcoReps. Elvidge said she organized it to appraise the college’s waste disposal, and said she was disappointed with the results.

“I think we have the capacity to go above and beyond what we’re doing right now,” Elvidge said. “There needs to be behavior change from everyone—students, staff, and faculty."

Prior to being hired at Emerson, Elvidge was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program coordinator at Project Bread, a nonprofit in East Boston working to promote sustainable and reliable access to healthy food. She said she left to look at the “bigger picture” of environmental sustainability.

Elvidge said her goal for 2016 is to ensure all recyclable materials get discarded correctly.

Hired in October 2015, Elvidge is the only staff member whose entire job is dedicated to improving sustainability efforts on campus. These tasks include the college’s move in October 2014 to hire Save That Stuff, Inc. to introduce single-stream recycling, which is the process of discarding common reusable materials in one bin instead of separately.  

The company reports the college’s recycling rates monthly, but does not account for the actual contents of the landfill waste bags. According to monthly reports from Save That Stuff, Inc., on average, 17 percent of the college’s waste was recyclable materials. This figure counts the whole weight of any landfill waste bag, even a large portion of the contents that have been misplaced.

The waste audit went more in-depth than the average monthly report by accounting for the actual contents of each bag and measuring them separately. The team examined trash from four different locations on campus, Little Building dorms, Walker Building classrooms, and Ansin Building offices, discarded within a 24-hour period, Elvidge said. The garbage was collected and weighed at the end of the day, Elvidge said, and the team sorted landfill waste from recyclables by hand. The results revealed nearly half of the material in landfill waste bins was tossed incorrectly, but the recycling bins showed only about two percent contamination.  Students living in residence halls were the worst at recycling, based on the poor outcome of the waste audited from Little Building.

Mother Earth is not the only one paying a price for misplaced paper, plastic, and glass. The cost of waste disposal falls on students, according to Jon Honea, assistant professor in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, and member of the Sustainability Committee.  

“Recycling is much cheaper to get rid of than trash because people want to reuse it,” Honea  said.

Honea said it’s the administration’s responsibility to provide the proper recycling and waste containers and clear signage, and to further education about shrinking Emerson’s waste footprint.  

Elvidge said she plans to address these issues of signage and education.

“I’ll be making sure the bins are where they need to be and being emptied enough,” Elvidge said. “The signs need to be clear about where everything goes. We need to increase available information. Education is putting stress on behavior change and bringing awareness to the act of recycling.”

Elvidge said the Office of Creative Services is creating a flyer displaying items regularly thrown away and instructing students to recycle properly.

She plans to work with resident assistants to talk to students about waste management in dorms, and with Emerson staff to do the same in offices on campus.

To help with these initiatives, Emerson employs the EcoReps, a group of eight paid students on campus working with Elvidge to reduce the college’s environmental impact.

Brad Trumpfheller, Little Building EcoRep and a freshman writing, literature, and publishing major, said students need to be more environmentally aware and conscious.

“It’s a two-part process,” Trumpfheller said. “We need to make sure the students understand what needs to be recycled, and also they need to take initiative. If we’re speaking to students who don’t care, it doesn’t matter. They have to want to make the school more environmental than it already is.”

Elvidge said she attributes her strong connection with the environment to her upbringing. Her parents, who she said are organic farmers in Northern California, raised her to be a frugal and  conscious consumer.  

Unfortunately for the recycling effort at Emerson, not everyone has roots in conservation.  Elvidge said she believes a large portion of the college’s waste problem comes from the lack of value on reuse in American culture.  

“The U.S. is the premier trash-producing country in the world,” Elvidge said. “We’re a culture of using more, not a culture of simplicity or versatility or using less.”

Under Elvidge, Emerson recently became the first higher education institution to take part in Keurig’s “Pods to Power” campaign. The correct way to recycle K-Cups is to send them back so they can be incinerated, Elvidge said, and the college just added specified bins to toss these coffee pods in offices around campus.

Sam Pridgen, a freshman visual and media arts major, said he does his best to recycle, but understands why students run into problems.   

"We don’t know exactly what we can recycle and what we can’t,” Pridgen said. “If we’re not sure, we automatically assume it’s trash. I know I’m guilty of that.”

Pridgen said administration reaching out to students with information about sustainability would help make the college more environmentally friendly. He also said that if the signs next to bins had pictures instead of words, it might be easier to understand.

Based on the trash results around campus, Elvidge said she doesn’t think sustainability is a priority for students. But as a school that teaches innovation, Elvidge said, Emerson should strive to be a leader in sustainability. 

“In Piano Row, I found a clear [recycling] bag with a ton of recycling material, food waste, and a shoe,” she said. “If you could just put the food waste and the shoe on the other side of the hall, then you’d be solving the problem.”

Despite the shortcomings of students’ sustainable efforts at Emerson, Elvidge believes the students’ pursuit of careers in media could be influential in promoting change.

“We are the world of communication,” she said. “We need leaders in this field of be sensitive to sustainability. Emerson is probably more powerful than another school helping reframe normal ways of living.”