Dumpster diving

March 2, 2010, 12:51 a.m.

Julie Muir lifted a soiled coffee cup from the folds of a garbage bag and held it up like a wine connoisseur appraising a glass of merlot. Around her, a handful of students wearing lab coats and thick rubber-coated gloves awaited her decision.

“You see, now this one–this one is compostable,” Muir said, flicking the cup into a bin marked “Organics.”

On Friday morning, a small group of students and staff joined Muir, Stanford’s recycling program manager, for Stanford’s 18th waste audit in a corner of Peninsula Sanitary Services Center lot. They ripped open dozens of trash bags taken from the History Corner, and painstakingly sorted contents into labeled bins, looking for items that could be recycled, reused or composted.

“A crucial step in waste management and reducing our waste is seeing the actual outcomes of recycling and compost programs,” said Lucy Litvak ’11, a member of Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS) who attended the event.

Matt Roth, Stanford Dining’s Sustainable Foods Coordinator, has attended six such audits since he was hired last year.

“The real value of doing these waste audits is that you get a firsthand experience to see where our trash is going and what it’s comprised of,” Roth said.

Over the course of the morning, as trucks screeched in and out of the lot, Roth and the other sorters filled several garbage cans with waste that should have made it into recycling or compost bins. Miguel San Pedro ’12, another SSS member who joined in the audit, was not surprised.

“Oftentimes we tend to ignore that certain things are recyclable or compostable, or we just forget, or we’re lazy,” he said.

Muir said that a typical load of Stanford trash is 30 percent compostable and 20 percent recyclable.

“If we can get rid of that,” she said, “we can literally halve our waste.”

Thomas Fenner, deputy general counsel, who works in the History Corner and served on the Sustainable Working Group, stopped by to see how his building was doing. Fenner recently helped put a recycling bin at every desk in the History Corner’s offices.

“My guess is that that will increase the percentage of recycling and reduce the waste,” he said.

Muir agreed that this is an easily attainable goal.

“Paper, bottles and cans, that’s not the hard stuff, it’s not the stuff that should take a lot of thinking,” she said. “Organics is harder, because we’re not used to that as a society.”

The contents of the bags before her reflected this naiveté.

“Unfortunately there were a lot of organic materials inside the garbage,” Litvak said. “If we hadn’t sorted through the garbage, these organics, which will now go to the compost, will just go to the landfill.”

“It’s almost heartbreaking to see that we’ve actually spent more money to buy these compostable items, investing in this program,” Roth said, gesturing with a take-out box. “It’s a shame, but it speaks to the challenge we have in educating our customers to do the right things.”

Roth, Muir and the sorting students are already moving to meet this challenge. SSS recently organized compost workshops at Tresidder. Purin Phanichphant, a graduate student in product design who attended the audit, is working on a project to redesign Stanford’s waste bins.

“One thing that we did last year was to petition Jamba Juice to not use styrofoam, just as a result of looking at Stanford’s waste stream,” said Theo Gibbs ’11, who helped organize the very first waste audit her freshman year. “Students keep coming out and learning about it.”

“Everyone who does this gets educated about the complexity of process,” Muir added, citing the educational awareness that the audits promote.

The sorters are anxious to pass this education on.

“The biggest challenge is getting [consumers] to put stuff in the right place,” Roth said as he pulled the last few soda cans from his garbage bag. “It’s clear from today that we have an opportunity to definitely improve what we’re doing.”

“There are a lot of pieces that we are missing answers for but that doesn’t mean we stand still and wait,” Muir added. “We have to do our part, and all of these little steps will create this closed loop system that we’re trying to get to.”

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