On April 10, environmentally conscious CofC students from across campus gathered for what is known as a “waste audit.” This impactful day of sustainability started at 6 a.m. when mounds of trash bags were dumped in the middle of Cougar Mall. From there, students and some faculty pulled on their rubber gloves and dug through dozens of trash bags, sorting their contents into bins of compost, recyclables, liquids, electronics and landfill waste.
The Alliance for Planet Earth hosted the event as part of the Sustainability Week repertoire. Created by the Office of Sustainability, the week and the waste audit are dedicated to creating “what we call an active sustainability culture” between members of the community, says Jen Jones, Facilities Coordinator at the Office and major actor in the audit.
She, along with representatives from the Alliance contacted CofC’s Physical Plant to collect mass amounts of indiscriminate waste discarded in trashcans around campus. Then members of Alliance for Planet Earth, Green CofC, sororities, fraternities and random earth-friendly volunteers bravely sorted through the trash by hand. Jones informs that after being weighed and accounted for, “our recycling guy, Carl Crews, [will] help us pick up the recycling and take it up to the recycling plant tomorrow morning. And then we’ll actually take the composting to the dining facilities because they have compost pickup there everyday.” Finally, the remaining waste products were sent to the landfill.
Some volunteers, however, saved certain items from being discarded at all, considering them too valuable or hilarious to abandon, including unopened bags of flower leis and a low-budget porn film. Others marveled at the sheer amount of valuable plastic, metal, paper and biodegradable material.
More surprising than the careless tossing was the number of products that were simply unwanted but perfectly good. One by one, volunteers gawked at their finds as they pulled them from the bags, including “a cashmere sweater,” noted one volunteer. David Hester, executive board member of Green CofC, noticed that someone tossed what appeared to be “pretty much a full meal.” The box included “ribs, fries, unopened ketchup,” much to his chagrin. “It’s surprising,” he added. He then proceeded to ask a fellow volunteer about the proper receptacle for the plastic cutlery in the boxed meal.
The waste audit is equally an opportunity to raise awareness as a learning experience. Even those already in the habit of recycling needed confirmation of the proper bin for some items, reflecting a need for better education on what can be recycled where. When asked to speculate on the possible reasons for inaction, this issue came up again and again. For example, the Alliance for Planet Earth vice president, Christina Crossley, claims, “They’re just uninformed about it. Because there were a lot of things today like bags of recyclable material that people just like thought they could put in the regular trash.”
Others, like Hester, point to apathy, especially in the context of a young adult population. “You can tell some of the bags from parties, like the really big one over there, it was an entire bag full of beer cans, dip–uh what are they called? cans?–bottles, old liters, you know, they just put everything into a bag and threw it out because they didn’t want to have to deal with it. You know, maybe they just didn’t care? I don’t know.”
Taking these factors into account, many of those involved agree that awareness is only the first step. Jones explains, “We are in the very nascent stages of sustainability at CofC. So bare minimum sustainability stuff is trash, energy efficiency; to be honest we still have a lot of work to do in those realms. But really pushing forward and thinking beyond that, okay, when we get to the point where we’re all recycling and to the point where our buildings are all energy efficient, we’re still not gonna be sustainable…You’re not gonna want to make changes to something you don’t care about, so one of our big initiatives is really creating a sense of place at the College. We’re also working to create [a culture] where people understand sustainability from all sorts of perspectives, and really are able to work that into their lives and their way of thinking.”