Getting Trashed on the Loading Dock: SUST Students Conduct Waste Audit of RU’s Chicago Campus

RU students and staff sort the trash from the AUD Theatre on the RU loading dock, Oct. 2014 (M. Bryson)

RU students and staff sort the trash from the AUD Theatre on the RU loading dock, Oct. 2014 (M. Bryson)

Last Thursday, October 17th, students in Professor Mike Bryson’s SUST 240 Waste & Consumption honors class gathered at Roosevelt’s Wabash Building loading dock instead of their regular classroom to poke through the trash. More specifically, they conducted the second systematic waste audit of RU’s Chicago Campus in order to ascertain how much waste various areas of the campus produced in a single day, how much of that waste was being diverted from landfills by being recycled, and how effective the university’s recycling efforts (in terms of what kind of stuff gets thrown where). The first Chicago waste audit, which focused exclusively on the then-newly opened Wabash Building, was also performed by SUST 240 students back in the Fall of 2012.

Gloves highly recommended for this class! (M. Bryson)

Gloves highly recommended for this class! (M. Bryson)

This was truly a hands-on learning experience, so much so that rubber gloves and a strong nose were required — not to mention a cheerful attitude and a decent measure of physical stamina! The 13 students, one faculty member, and two staff (Tom Shelton of Physical Resources and Noe Villagomez of the Auditorium Theatre) split into four teams and managed to sample five office, classroom, and performance areas of the Auditorium and Wabash buildings in just 2.5 hours, start to finish. Student auditors not only weighed the collected trash and recycling to determine how much of RU’s total waste stream is being diverted, but also sifted through each carefully labeled bag, piece by soggy piece, to category each item of waste by material according to the EPA’s WARM guidelines. This way they discovered what kind of materials we’re throwing away; what we’re recycling; and what we could be recycling or composting but aren’t — yet.

  • Of the over 140 pounds of refuse from 15 Wed 2014 sorted through that afternoon, students determined that 79% was put in the trash while only 29% was being properly recycled — well below Roosevelt’s goal of achieving a 50% recycling rate for the university as a whole by 2015, and several notches below the 2011 US average municipal waste recycling/waste diversion rate of 35%, as reported by the EPA.
  • Moreover, they detected different rates of recycling in various areas of the campus: from a high of just over 50% on one office area (WB 13th Floor for RU insiders) to a low of 0% in the Auditorium Theatre. These figures indicate not just a clear need for significant improvement, but also the capacity to double RU’s overall recycling rate in the near future.

Chicago Campus Waste Audit 2014 Oct 16
Pre-Sorted Waste and Recycling by Campus Area

Pre-sort waste audit data F14

Evidence of RU's social justice mission: it's everywhere. Literally. (M. Bryson)

Evidence of RU’s social justice mission: it’s everywhere. Literally. (M. Bryson)

The post-sorting materials analysis of both the trash and recycling streams indicate that there is great potential for recycling and composting the vast majority of the university’s waste stream, if all potentially recyclable items are properly segregated and a comprehensive composting program is implemented. Doing that will involve not just new systems of waste collection and processing (for composting) but also better recycling practices by faculty, staff, and students. Post-sort waste audit data F14 graph 1

Post-sort waste audit data F14 graph 2

The SUST Program sincerely thanks Tom Shelton and Noe Villagomez for digging into this project with great enthusiasm, Mariola Szklaruk and her housekeeping staff for coordinating the trash/recycling samples, and the intrepid undergrads in SUST 240 for getting down and dirty on the loading dock in the service of (garbage) science. See this preliminary report (pdf) for a more detailed overview of our study, and stay tuned for the fuller report once we finish crunching all the data.

Five areas sampled in 2.5 hours: well done, team! (M. Bryson)

Five areas sampled in 2.5 hours: well done, team! (M. Bryson)

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