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Waste is a terrible thing to mind
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Waste is a terrible thing to mind

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Students got a valuable hands-on lesson on how waste audits are done. Oregon State University’s campus recycling program had a lot of hands to help with its largest-ever waste audit. And passers-by got a chance to reflect on what a significant chunk of OSU’s trash for a day looks like.

It was a classic win-win-win. Well, except, it was a little gross.

“It makes me respect the people who do this for a living even more,” said Simon Meyer, a senior in environmental science who helped sort and measure trash at the Student Experience Center Plaza as part of project in a sustainability assessment class last week. “I’m doing this for three hours, and I’m not having the time of my life.”

But Meyer was learning:

“If this is just one day of trash, it gives you an impression of how much trash we are producing."

“It’s overwhelming,” said Brendon Rojas, a senior in horticulture, of the amount of trash, which was collected from 30 campus buildings, a large chunk of the campus, but not all of it.

More than 20 students in Ann Scheerer’s sustainability assessment class participated in the exercise. Other groups in her class, part of a sustainability degree within the College of Agricultural Sciences, are working on other projects, such as how to include sustainability in OSU curriculum. Scheerer said the purpose of the class is to give students the tools to measure how sustainability efforts are working.

She said she’s taught the class for four years, but this is the first time students have been asked to participate in a waste audit.

John Deuel, OSU’s recycling program manager, said the university periodically does waste audits, some even with student participation.

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“What’s different about this ... is it’s the broadest audit we’ve done so far,” he said.

Deuel said the students recorded data about the audit, such as weight and volume, after sorting it into different categories. This data will inform campus recycling’s planning, budgeting and program development. He said the plan is to use this as a baseline and have students in sustainability assessment classes repeat the exercise in future years so they can see how things are changing.

Deanna Lloyd, an instructor in the sustainability degree program and the coordinator of its experiential education initiatives, said there is a lot of research to back the idea that students learn best by doing.

“We’re trying to get students out of the classroom to learn,” she said.

Lloyd said Deuel wanted to do a waste audit, which created a great opportunity for hands-on learning. And by placing the audit in a central campus location, the impact of seeing a significant amount of OSU’s daily trash all in one place could make an impression on anyone in the area.

Meyer said one thing he observed sorting trash was just how much compostable food is thrown away, despite the presence of bins for compostable materials on campus.

“I’m learning many people don’t finish their meals,” he said, recalling encountering a full bag of chips and half-full takeout containers.

Rojas and Meyer said they sorted out at least 40 pounds of compostables within the first third of their three-hour sorting shift.

With OSU putting so much effort into making composting available, you have to wonder what is going on with people when they throw food in the trash, Meyer said.

Rojas added he was surprised to see how much plastic film (plastic bags and the like) ended up in recycling containers, despite the fact that no waste processors locally have a process for recycling the film products, and putting them in recycling often gums up machines that sort recyclables. However, he said the 15 pounds of plastic film they found in the first hour of their shift was evidence that there was a need for some use for the plastic.

“As a community, we need a place for recycling this film,” he said.

Anthony Rimel covers education and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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