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“Anyone want some Chinese food?” asked Steven Payne.

Payne, an Oregon State University junior chemical engineering major from Roseburg, was participating in a messy school project Friday in the covered plaza between the Student Experience Center and the Memorial Union.

Payne and “teammates” Meryl Muckenthaler, Valentine Granger and Christopher Atwood, were sorting trash that was generated at university residence halls. And Payne got no takers for the leftover Chinese food he uncovered. The goal of the project is to see how much recyclable material is winding up in the trash. Later Friday the students plowed through the recycling bins from the dorms and see how much nonrecyclable material and contamination was in the recycling containers.

Five other teams were gathered in the plaza, engaging in the same sort of sort from other campus sectors, including administrative buildings, dining centers, campus support facilities and athletic and recreation buildings.

“It’s a learning experience,” said Ann Scheerer, consultant and academic adviser for the sustainability degree program in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “We’re hoping to discover the consumption habits of different buildings and inform our materials management group how to set up better recycling and reduction programs.”

This is the second year of the recycling and waste audit and John Deuel, OSU’s recycling program manager, said “it will be interesting to see if we have improved because we have the baseline from last year.”

The residence hall group clearly had its gloves full. The students were clad in Tyvek suits and booties. All wore gloves, and some wore masks as they dumped a steady stream of trash from the bins onto a table for sorting. Muckenthaler, a senior merchandising and materials design major from Oregon City, kept referring to the list of 14 categories of items … “what people can and can’t recycle.”

“We will have a better idea of what needs to be done,” said Payne of the goals of the sort.

The students, as well as the university, Oregon and the rest of the United States, also are operating under new recycling rules because of a crackdown by China on how much contamination can exist in recyclable material imported by the country.

The stakes are high at OSU, with 30,000 faculty, staff and students on campus each day. Using the student auditors makes the operation more cost-effective, said Deuel.

“We have been able to limit the costs of conducting this large an audit through in-kind support of the university and some outlays from the academic department that supports the sustainability academic program,” he said.

“The results should be helpful in guiding our strategic planning and outreach in an environment of shifting recycling markets globally and locally. We also made a significant change in how we collect at residence halls, due in part because of the results of last year’s audit. This year we will see if the quality of recycled materials will be improved.”

Deuel was in constant motion during the audit, wheeling bins around the plaza and advising the students of the difference between Styrofoam (recyclable) and polystyrene take-out food boxes (not recyclable).

The residence hall group kept at it, finding a very over-ripe bunch of bananas as well as a plastic tub of dying tomatoes. The students also found items that would have been recyclable if they had been “empty, clean and dry,” such as tin cans and sports drink bottles.

Muckenthaler noted that she found a bag of recyclables ... in the trash. “That’s weird,” she said.

Scheerer said the university also will be looking at possible policy alternatives based on the audit, similar to the move this fall from plastic disposable straws to compostable paper ones in on-campus dining halls and restaurants.

“We want to get people to reduce” what they use, Scheerer said. “Maybe we need a zero plastic policy on campus.”

Scheerer noted that the 10-campus University of California system is vowing to get to zero waste by 2020.

Deuel said he hoped to have the results of the audit ready in the next few weeks. The students are compiling it for a term project.

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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