In 2013, CVU installed sorting stations in the cafeteria to separate trash, recycling, and compost. They were designed by students in EnACT (Environmental Action Club). Although all of the students currently at CVU have been using the stations since they started here, problems with sorting remain.
Grace Hemmelgarn and Tess Cloutier, the EnACT members leading the project to improve the stations and educate people about proper use, had some insights about why students have trouble knowing where to put their garbage. According to Hemmelgarn, “common mistakes include chip bags, brown salad boats, [and] wax paper.” Many of the items that confuse students come from food packaged by the cafeteria. For example, the salad containers are made from plant-based plastic, which is compostable. Since they look like typical plastic containers, however, they are often found in the recycling bin. Similarly, wax paper, which also belongs in the compost, often ends up in the trash. When a ‘batch’ of recycling or compost has an item that does not belong, the whole container is thrown away. In this way, more material ends up in landfills instead of where it belongs.
Since the installation of the sorting stations, EnACT has done several projects directed to improve sorting accuracy. EnACT members have conducted several “trash audits”, where students sorted waste pulled from the landfill and recycling bins to figure out commonly misplaced items. Posters were put up around the school with pictures of these items and their proper places in the stations.
One of the largest environmental issues facing our nation is solid waste management. According to the Los Angeles Times, the United States generated about 624,700 metric tons of trash per day in 2011. Few people think about where their trash goes after it leaves the curb — but landfills are hardly the convenient solution you might assume. Landfills produce methane gas and can leech toxins into nearby water supplies. Animal habitats disappear as these waste disposal areas expand, wreaking havoc on biodiversity. The soil around landfill sites often becomes depleted of nutrients and cannot sustain agriculture.
So what is the solution? Many environmentalists have turned to living “zero waste”; they forgo single-use plastic and rely only on goods that they can reuse, recycle, or compost. Interested in getting started? Here are some tips from the experts on producing less trash.
From Celia Ristow of Litterless: “Start slowly – it’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s okay! Small changes that you can stick to add up to large changes over time. I suggest making one change a week or one every other week, to give the new habit time to stick before you add another one.”
From Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers: “I always recommend evaluating where you make the most waste and tackling those areas with preparation! For example, if you use plastic bags when you shop, make sure to bring your own reusable bags in the future. Now take this same preparation to all of the areas where you are making waste.”
From Anne-Marie Bonneau of The Zero Waste Chef: “Well, for the general population, I would say my number one rule is to cut processed food and learn to cook (sort of two tips…). Most of the plastic and other trash in our waste stream comes from food packaging, and much of that comes from processed food, which isn’t healthy for us or the planet. So cut the shiny packages—chips, soda, cookies, frozen pizzas, fast food and so on—and you not only eliminate a ton of trash, you improve your diet and health.”
What are some of the challenges of adopting a lifestyle with less waste?
According to Anne Marie, “I think the biggest challenge is just getting started. If you start to analyze your trash, you might be shocked—especially by the plastic coming out of your kitchen, and also the food waste. You may not know where to start. I would suggest you start small and not try to go cold turkey all at once. Perhaps taking a reusable mug or thermos to your local café, shopping at the farmers’ market for loose produce or packing a zero-waste lunch for school. If you try to quit all at once, you may feel overwhelmed and fail. And even if you do start small, you’ll still mess up at some point. It’s inevitable. Don’t beat yourself up. Just do your best. If everyone did that, we’d be in much better shape.”