Socks. An unopened loaf of bread. Ear phones.
All of those things could — and probably should — have ended up someplace other than the trash. But that’s where they were Wednesday, until they were pulled from a smelly Dumpster at Oregon State University.
Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and as one of OSU’s Earth Week events, two staff members from Campus Recycling — recycling manager Peter Lepre and recycling program assistant Andrea Norris — were joined by volunteer Greg Smith, a sustainability program assistant, for a “trash audit” of a Dumpster that had trash from Callahan Hall.
The three wore rubber gloves as they pawed through bags of trash, separating items into recyclable, compostable, reusable or “true” trash.
“The purpose is to see what are you throwing away, and how could you have either composted it, recycled it or not had it in the first place,” Norris said of the third annual event.
“One of the interesting things about doing audits is seeing what perfectly good stuff people throw away,” Smith said.
“Perfectly good” items (at least, on first inspection) included unopened containers of food, full bottles of bath products and clothing. Some offenders were worse than others, such as the person who just tossed away three metal forks and a knife along with a take-out food container.
“There’s always a lot of very obviously recyclable stuff,” Norris said as she picked a few pieces of notebook paper out of a bag. “Like paper.”
Items that were classified as “reusable,” such as a shirt in good condition, weren’t actually reused after being taken from the trash, but were separated out for measuring purposes.
Some of the items sparked questions.
“Do you think Pop Tarts ever break down?” Smith asked. “Ever?”
Despite an open invitation for anyone to help with the sorting, few volunteered. The thoroughly trashy smell probably didn’t help.
“I was hungry, but I’m not having lunch today,” Smith said with a laugh.
Several passersby did stop to ask what was going on.
Michelle Romero, a senior in chemistry, wanted to know why a particular type of disposable coffee cup couldn’t be recycled when chemistry tests showed they do in fact break down.
Norris explained that the cups can be recycled, but the facility that takes OSU’s recycling doesn’t accept them.
“I’m glad you guys are here,” Romero said. “I’ve always wondered that.”
“I’d say that kind of stuff is the biggest benefit right there, when people stop and ask questions,” Smith said. “It’s spreading awareness.”
If Wednesday’s activity had been a real audit, OSU students would have a lot to explain. Although every dorm room has a bin to collect recycling — and each floor in the residence halls has a room for recyclables — just tossing recyclables proved to be a common choice.
At the end of the day, Norris and Lepre weighed the 192 pounds of sorted material to find out how much of it actually needed to end up in the trash. As with previous audits, only about one-third of the “garbage” really qualified as trash. The rest could have been recycled, composted or reused.
Norris, who has been involved with other campus trash audits, said those numbers are typical.
“(Students) live kind of disposable lifestyles, and they live on the go,” she said.
Lepere said the answer to reducing waste on campus is making students realize that every little piece adds up.
“I think the general feeling is ... people don’t feel like they’re making an impact,” Lepre said. “That’s what you need to change: their mindset.”
Getting up close and personal with the contents of a Dumpster is one way to do that, Norris said.
“It definitely sticks with me for a while after the audit.”