Digging through the waste

Waste audits help improve recycling efforts

When sorting through someone else’s garbage, you never know what you’ll find. Participants in the annual waste audit in the Burge Carnival Room encountered stale food, clothing, and even some dollar bills. This year’s waste audit for Burge and Daum halls happened on April 3. The waste audit effort is a collaboration between student organizations, students enrolled in the Sustainable Systems course, University Housing & Dining department, Waste Management Inc., the City of Iowa City, Iowa Waste Exchange, and the UI Office of Sustainability. Although it takes a strong nose to sort through garbage, dealing with the stench is worth the effort to find better ways to recycle on campus.

“Pursuing recycling and waste reduction feels great,” says Eric Holthaus, Recycling Coordinator for the UI. “It also adds a lot of value to people’s days when they can make such a tangible contribution to their community.”

These contributions help the university move toward its goal of a 60% reduction in campus waste going to the landfill by 2020. Sorting and weighing trash in a waste audit helps to measure the university’s progress. The figures from the audit show what adjustments the university needs to make, and helps to evaluate outreach efforts to students. In the April 3rd audit, single-stream recycling items accounted for 24% of the waste sampled, sorted recycling items were at 12%, organic waste (mostly food) was at 30%, and trash was at 33%. According to Holthaus, single-stream recycling has increased when compared to their 2011 waste audit, but there is still room for improvement.

“We learned that our single-stream recycling system on campus is catching more recycling than we used to without single-stream,” says Holthaus. “We learned that there is still a lot of recycling that could be done, and we found that a large portion of the waste stream is compostable—or, organic.”

Photos by Lev Cantoral / Student Life Marketing + Design

The waste audit also served as an education for those who participated — people ranging from students to professionals from the community. The experience of sorting through waste made volunteers more cognisant of their own habits and raised awareness about what could be done to help the environment. For Alicia Presto, a Resource Specialist for the Iowa Waste Exchange for the State of Iowa, the experience will be applied to her work helping businesses in the area become more sustainable. Waste issues can vary across different businesses, but the basics of a waste audit can be applied broadly, according to Presto.

“I also think it’s important to help the University of Iowa meet its sustainability targets like reducing waste since it is such a large institution,” says Presto. “As a resource specialist for the Iowa Waste Exchange, my job is to help businesses divert waste from the landfill through conventional and sometimes creative recycling methods.”

The university has introduced single-stream recycling, a process where all recyclable materials, from cardboard to aluminum, can be tossed into one bin. This effort was phased in on campus starting in 2011, and is a joint effort between the university, Waste Management, Inc., and City Carton Recycling. The waste gathered in the single stream system goes to the City Carton Recycling facility in Cedar Rapids where an automated sorting system separates the different materials for resale. Evaluating this system requires a little less technology than at City Carton Recycling as the volunteers must sort through all the garbage from Burge and Daum by hand.

“Af first, sorting through the bags of trash was pretty horrifying, after all, this was my very first waste audit!” says Presto. “After a few minutes, though, it was more interesting than gross to sort through each bag.”

The waste audit measured the effectiveness of current recycling and composting efforts in the residence halls. The results show improvements over last year, but there is much to be done to meet the 60% diversion goal in the next seven years.

“We can use these figures to show students that there is more work to be done, and they are an integral part to [our] success,” says Holthaus. “We live in a very data-driven culture, and anytime we can show people where we’re at and where we’re going with numbers – and how they can make tangible impacts – the more we can make lasting impressions.”