Last spring’s waste audit conducted by members of Duke Student Government’s Services and Sustainability Committee dug up some pretty rotten results.
Sophomore Shreya Joshi and juniors Hailey Ross and Chaya Brennan Agarwal counted each piece of trash from the Bryan Center Plaza trash cans to observe how well the Duke community was sorting it trash, recyclable and compostable items. Their resulting waste audit results memo reveals that as much as 79% of waste is missorted on average.
“Clearly the statistics show that there is an issue with people not composting and that University resources are being wasted. We are just not being efficient about waste. The University can help that by increasing access and awareness about composting,” Joshi said.
The committee argues that students are not able to sort their waste because of a lack of information and accessibility to compost bins. Since students may not be at fault for insufficient compost bins, the memo carried out separate statistical tests to determine how much waste was missorted including as well as excluding compost.
In analyzing only the trash and recycling bins, the senators found that some 40 to 50% of waste in any given bin is missorted. In other words, almost half of a given recycling bin’s contents from the BC Plaza should actually be landfilled.
When they factored in compostable items, they found that between 71 and 79% of waste may be missorted in any given bin. The item most commonly missorted was found to be compostable waste.
Students may be unfamiliar with waste management within the University because campus infrastructure for recycling and composting is highly localized.
“Whether recycling and/or composting are available and what you can and can’t divert from the landfill varies from country to country, state to state, city to city. As a result, familiarity with the processes understandably varies from student to student when they arrive at Duke,” wrote Marcus Carson, associate director for sustainability and strategic initiatives for Duke Dining.
The DSG waste audit memo emphasizes the need for expanded composting infrastructure. As of October 2020, post-consumer compost was available in Wilson Recreation Center, Brodie Recreation Center, Grainger Hall, Levine Science Research Building, Smith Warehouse, the Fuqua School of Business and some Duke Dining locations. The University does not “have the capacity” to expand compost collection at this time, according to Duke Recycles.
The University has invested in compostable food containers at campus dining locations, “but if there’s nowhere to put the containers, what’s the point of having them?” Joshi said. “It just seems like a complete waste of University resources to be putting money into compostable items for students to just not be composting.”
Another common student mistake was throwing contaminated items into recycling bins. Ross attributes this error to a lack of awareness about what recycling really constitutes.
“People don’t know that you have to wash something out before recycling,” Ross said. “A good rule of thumb is that if your container is 10% contaminated by food or drink, it can’t be processed by the recycling plant.”
She explained that one mistake can ruin the contents of an entire recycling bin. If that iced coffee you threw into the recycling bin spills everywhere, the whole bin can’t be processed by the recycling facility.
“One person’s mistake can mess up everyone else doing it right,” Ross said.
The memo urges the University to facilitate an educational program to provide students and faculty information about which items are compostable, recyclable, or landfill waste.
The memo concludes that it is “necessary to install permanent and comprehensive compost infrastructure on Duke’s campus” in an effort to increase the University’s sustainability. The committee also plans on subsequent annual waste audits to track the progress of sustainability efforts.
In the meantime, the committee suggests that students take the time to learn the difference between recyclable items and trash items and to utilize the Brodhead Center’s dish return service when possible in order to compost food items.
Duke Dining is “working to provide more guidance on how to sort waste within our dining facilities,” as well as “working with several student organizations and the Office of Sustainability to provide more education on how to sort dining-related waste,” Carson wrote. Students can refer to information provided by Duke’s Office of Sustainability on how recycling and composting works on campus.
“The ocean is on fire. We’re at the point where islands are sinking. If you can’t see the reason why waste is important, then you’re not looking. You’re willfully deciding to not pay attention,” Joshi said.
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Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior and an opinion columnist for The Chronicle's 118th volume.