What’s In Your Trash?

What’s in your trash? It’s a question few of us care to ask ourselves. Understandably so, since trash is icky, and there’s usually a lot of it. So who cares? Why? And how far would they go to find out?

Well, for starters, anyone who cares about money cares about trash. Space in and for landfills is finite. The scarcer the space, the more expensive throwing your stuff in there will be. These prices, often called “tipping fees”, vary regionally based on land Imageavailability. Tipping fees exist not just because land is limited, but more importantly because to developed societies trash is nearly worthless. With the exception of methane capture and park space, our trash is the dead end of a linear production and consumption pathway.

Recycling, on the other hand, can curve that linear pathway into a loop of sorts. Benefits result not just in the form of not having to pay tipping fees, but also by selling the recycled stuff back to the production process. Even in a down economy, manufacturing companies pay big bucks for these raw materials as an alternative to mining for new ones. Arguments about efficiency and down-cycling aside, people make a ton of money from recycling.

Bloomington partners with several private companies to bring recycling opportunities to the city. Indiana University utilizes these facilities to bring recycling opportunities to its students. These facilities accept our campus’ recycling for free, since they turn around and sell it. This presents a great cost-avoidance opportunity for IU – the more we recycle, the more money we save in tipping fees. What a deal!

Last year, IU Building Services recycled 1,185 tons of material (about a quarter of IU’s total waste). At $38 per ton to landfill it, the university saved over $45,000. Wow! Kinda makes you wonder how we can make our recycling numbers grow, right? Well before we left for Thanksgiving break, the Office of Sustainability teamed up with a group of fearless volunteers to find out just how much of what’s thrown away on campus could still be recycled (trash nerds call this “contamination”). They conducted “waste audits” of Ballantine and Woodburn Halls, where volunteers donned in massively thick gloves and super-attractive safety glasses sorted through representative samples of each building’s waste. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • In both buildings, about half of what was thrown away was actually recyclable.
  • In the hallways of Ballantine Hall, about 16% of trash can contents were recyclable. In Woodburn Hall, however, 46% of the trash should have been recycled. This is probably due to the fact that in Ballantine’s hallways, trash cans are almost always placed immediately next to (or “paired with”) recycling bins. Woodburn’s hallway bins are not as consistently paired.
  • In Ballantine Hall’s offices, 63% of trash was paper.
  • In Ballantine Hall’s classrooms, nearly 40% of trash was compostable (food scraps or paper napkins).
  • On average, disposable coffee cups made up about 20-30% of actual trash material.

Obviously, plenty of opportunity exists to increase the amount we send to be recycled. In turn, we would decrease the amount we have to send to the landfill (which is all the way over in Terre Haute, by the way). So what’s the next step? This winter, all academic buildings are getting brand-new, eye-catching recycling bins with clearer signage; Building Services has already begun the transformation throughout most of campus. Hopefully, the new bins will increase the amount folks recycle. They might also have other positive side effects by reducing litter and making our custodians’ work a bit easier. If everyone were to use these bins just a little more, we will all together have a huge effect. How can you help? Just find a bin, and put it in.

Written by Mark Milby, Campus Waste Audit Program Intern. If you have any questions about the audit or recycling at IU, you can contact Mark at momilby@indiana.edu.

The campus waste figures were taken from reports by IU Office of Sustainability interns Meredith Dowling and Emmy Giovanni. They can be found at http://www.indiana.edu/~sustain/.

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