Waste audit reveals contamination in recycling and organics

Christa Kelly, Staff Writer

A waste audit completed on campus in December found that Augsburg has a long way to go before the school is really going green.

“Waste audits are a way to assess what’s in our garbage,” said Aaryn Wilson, a Green Corps member stationed at Augsburg. The audits involve sorting through dumpsters to see if different items are being put in the right containers. This most recent waste audit found that they were not.

“The last one we did revealed contamination was happening in the recycling and the organics,” Wilson said. The numbers he reported were staggering. In the recycling dumpster, 69 percent of the waste was actually organics. An additional 4 percent was trash, leaving only 27 percent of the material in the recycling bin actually being recyclable. The organics bin wasn’t much better; the composition was 42 percent recyclables, 11 percent trash and 47 percent organics.

Wilson began working at the school in October. Soon after he began, he assisted in organizing a waste audit. The results were similar to this most recent one.

“It’s a combination of students, staff and janitors,” he said when asked what was causing the high rates of contamination. He gestured towards a compost bin next to us. “People just see a bin and throw stuff in it.”

This has larger consequences than most people realize. Items that are put in the wrong bins not only make extra work for the custodial staff who have to sift through it, but they can also contaminate the other items in the bin. This can lead to a whole load of recyclable materials getting thrown away because of just a few items that weren’t placed in the right bin.

Contamination also has direct consequences for the University. Workers look in the dumpsters before loading waste into their trucks. They check to make sure that items are being put in the right bins and look for contaminants.

“When they see [contaminants], they give Augsburg a fine.”

Placing items in the wrong bins has consequences for our planet, too. Wilson summarized the effects in a report about the environmental benefits of composting.

“Many people believe that throwing food scraps and paper products into a landfill is harmless because they biodegrade. However, most people are surprised to learn that when these materials break down in a landfill, they become powerful contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Compostable materials such as food waste and paper decompose anaerobically (without oxygen) in a landfill, producing methane (CH4) which has 23–71 times greater heat trapping capabilities than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the single largest direct human source of methane.”

There are simple things that students can do to mitigate these negative effects. A large piece of this is education.

“It comes down to people’s awareness and training,” Wilson says. He recommends that Augsburg employees and students be specifically trained in how to correctly dispose of waste. Having recycling and compost receptacles available on campus amounts to nothing if people aren’t conscious about where they are placing things.

“Think twice before you throw things,” he says.

Even more important is learning how to reduce the amount of waste that is generated in the first place. Try to reuse materials. If you need something that is single-use, try to ensure that it can be composted or recycled.

“These are things that individuals can do, things that the Augsburg community should do.”

Wilson urges students and faculty to contact him if they have any questions or would like help making an event zero waste. He can be reached at wilsona3@augsburg.edu.

Students are encouraged to separate organics and trash in The Commons. Photo by Jim Pfeffer.

This article was originally published in the March 8, 2019 issue.