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Wasted

Fuqua Student (FS), you know who you are. You stood at the edge of the parking lot during graduate and professional student Campout with the bottom half of the hamburger bun in your hand and asked me, “Which one does it go in?”

Since this column isn’t actually about being wasted, which you may have been, and since this wasn’t your first time through the waste-free lunch sorting station, I challenged you to figure it out. You paused, looking down at the barrels and the signs, and claimed you didn’t know.

“Go with your gut,” I told you, assuming too much.

You threw that little scrap of bread in the trash.

“Wrong!” I told you. “Try the compost.”

FS, you embody a simple truth: Without me standing there waving my hands at the appropriate barrel, most people get equally flustered when confronted with this seemingly simple choice, or ignore it altogether.

Despite incidents like the one I experienced with FS, the waste-free lunch event, and events like it, are usually considered a success. At the end, a peek into the barrels reveals the compost to be nearly full, while the trash has almost nothing in it, and the recycling bins... well, they work overtime throughout an event like Campout.

But a huge amount of manpower is generally required to man the sorting stations. That’s in addition to the added planning and cost required to coordinate pick-up logistics, additional barrels and signage. This is not to say that composting, especially industrial composting, does not have viable economic value—it does. Duke participates daily, but behind the scenes in the prep kitchens, where there is less threat of contamination by the FS-character. There are, however, a few scattered post-consumer composting locations on campus.

I challenge you to find and use one.

German Graduate Student (GGS), you came up to the Sustainability table at the graduate student activities fair at the beginning of the semester. You asked about recycling, lamenting that you were having a hard time getting your new roommates to sort their trash. You listed glass, plastic, metal, paper, compost, trash. Five bins? Six?!

Haha, silly GGS, we have co-mingled recycling here in the good ol’ USA, you don’t have to sort all that stuff out separately! It all goes in the same bin. OK... well, some of it goes in the same bin... actually plastic, glass and metal can all be co-mingled. Then paper, and cardboard, that’s separate, while newspaper and glossies can usually go together. Compost... you have a pile out back? OK, so we’re back at like four buckets....

Yikes.

We could extrapolate conclusions that Europeans seem more adept at taking socially responsible action, or wander down the halls of the dysfunctional Duke waste collection system, but those feel obvious and previously digested. So let’s settle and say we are operating somewhere in the middle of a continuum.

Now here’s a story of a plastic bottle (PB). They’ve been getting a lot of press lately. I hear they’re bad.

To help tell the tale, in an emptying warehouse across the road from Smith Warehouse, I found Arwen Buchholz, Duke’s recycling and waste reduction coordinator.

The beginning is fairly easy: I’ve consumed the contents of my PB, and since I’m standing in Twinnie’s Café, I have deposited it in the centralized collection area to my left. (To combat the problem of the elusive collection stations around campus, Buchholz told me that by the end of the semester, her audit of locations should be available on the web to help with the search.)

Now my PB is sitting at the bottom of the bin, and one of Buchholz’s five recycling collection staff is picking it up. They’ll visit this site once a week. From the building, a truck will carry my bottle to the back of the parking lot, next to the warehouse where it will join its friends in a large roll-off (large dumpster) filled with other PBs and GBs (glass bottles) and ACs (aluminum cans).

From here, it will be hauled to the Sonoco Recycling transfer location in Durham. Sonoco bails it, then moves it to Raleigh where it’s sorted and shipped to mills. For beverage containers, those mills might be at Coca-Cola or Anheuser-Busch (Partay!), which produce their own containers on site. Usually, the recycled material will be mixed with virgin material. Economics plays into the picture here periodically. For instance, lower numbered plastics are worth actual money. They are more versatile.

But back to that decision, just after I swigged the last slug, what about the PB that doesn’t make it, that lands in the trash (FS, I’m looking at you!)? Since Oct. 1 here in North Carolina, that bottle is starting an illegal ride to the landfill. FS, aiding and abetting? I would not have guessed! GGS, are you surprised? This trip is not only illegal, it’s generally more expensive for Duke, but you’re unlikely to know that.

So on a scale of FS to GGS, how wasted is your PB (or hamburger bun, for that matter)?

Liz Bloomhardt is a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Friday.

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