By Sara Vetter
What constitutes trash?
As a proud recycler and re-user of grocery store food containers, I had trash compartmentally set aside. But what happens when you add compost into the mix? Should dry paper items be composted or recycled? For our project, we want to monitor what waste types end up in our outdoor campus trash and recycling bins. Part of the purpose is to explore whether there is a need for specialized bins - for compost or popular items showing up in the waste stream like coffee cups - for certain areas of campus. We did a trial run for our project this week, and realized that defining waste isn’t always straightforward.
We focused on a small area of North Campus and began qualitatively assessing trash bins. Question marks began to loom above our heads and furrow our brows. Some food containers and utensils found on campus are made from compostable materials, but they often look just like plastic. How can we distinguish the two? If compostable paper food containers have no food residue, do they belong in the recycling because UCLA currently has no compost bins on campus? If a plastic container has food residue, how much does it take to negate its recycling "worthiness"? I am sure these questions have crossed many other minds on campus.
Improving our own understanding of waste disposal makes us want to educate everyone else. At first, the confusion following our first attempts to sort waste caused us to take a step back. We talked about other directions for the team to head in, such as educating on disposal practices in the UCLA Lab School. As a small scale project that would involve working with children, it seemed like an ideal way to create tangible change.
But how can we leave the student body behind? We are a new team, with fresh ideas, plenty of past experience to build upon, and a stakeholder who has a high interest and many resources to help us.