Students must improve waste management, waste audits report

Courtesy of Madi Sandy ’25

Every week, a group of rubber-gloved student interns dig through randomly selected landfill and recycling bins across campus. Maybe you’ve noticed the color-coordinated bins, filled with takeaway coffee cups, orange peels, cupcake wrappers and seltzer cans, sitting in front of Main. The Vassar Office of Sustainability conducts these waste audits to study the placement of campus waste. For Madi Sandy ’25, an intern at the Sustainability Office who has been part of several waste audits, the experience as a whole can be gross and fascinating. 

A waste audit begins with interns sorting the contents of the trash and recycling into one of four categories: compost, trash, recycling and contaminated recycling, which is waste that would be recyclable if it was clean. “So like, plastic that has food on it, cardboard that has pizza grease,” Sandy clarified. Next, they measure these different waste proportions by weighing each collective category. This provides insight into what kind of waste is produced on campus, and how that waste is dealt with by students. Contaminated recycling is overwhelmingly prevalent, Sandy explained. “I think people want to recycle, because it makes them feel like they’re doing the right thing, but what people don’t realize is that when you recycle contaminated recycling, it actually discredits that whole bin.” For example, if someone tosses a yogurt cup into the recycling bin, but it still has yogurt in it, the clean bottles are contaminated and the entire bin has to be put in the trash. 

Courtesy of Madi Sandy ’25

Belinda Tran ’24, another intern at the Office of Sustainability, mentioned that contaminated recycling is a byproduct of proximity to dining areas. “My theory is that when people are in their dorms, they have easy access to the bathroom, where they can rinse their recyclables. But in dining areas, it might be too troublesome to find a sink, so they just toss it in recycling,” she said. Sandy agreed, suggesting that installing cleaning stations near recycling bins might combat the problem: “As long as recycling is clean, dry and empty, then you can recycle it.” She continues, “It’s not a hard rule to follow, but applying it can be challenging.” 

Contaminated recycling has been a consistent issue for Vassar. In a waste audit report from 2020, the Office of Sustainability found that the average rate of recycling contamination to be approximately 33 percent of all waste on campus. “If you’re unsure, just throw it in the trash,” Sandy advised. “The contamination actually does more harm than good,” Tran added. 

Despite these disheartening statistics, Tran remains optimistic about Vassar’s recycling program. She noted that, over the trajectory of past waste audits, the student body seems to be becoming more aware of the issues with contaminated recycling, which has led to a positive change. 

Courtesy of Madi Sandy ’25

Last semester, a group of students enrolled in Essentials of Environmental Science (ENST-124), in collaboration with the Office of Sustainability, conducted a waste audit of Gordon Commons to investigate the food waste habits of students. Clio Maya-Johnson ’25, who worked on the project, wanted to see if implementing a self-serve option would decrease the amount of food waste produced on a given day. Her group, which included Jordan Shamoun ’24 and Sebastian Montanez ’25, collected four separate trials of food waste. Two of these trials involved no manipulation of dining hall stations to determine how much food waste is normally generated on a given day, and the other two trials involved changing the Home station of the Deece into self-serve. They found that plate waste varied on a daily basis, and that the self-serve option did not change the amount of waste generated on a day. “The audit was inconclusive and showed that students’ relationship to the menu is much more reliable than their behavior and they honestly aren’t more ‘trustworthy’ to reduce plate waste themselves,” the report reads.  Interestingly enough, when a sample of students were asked how often they waste food, the majority polled “less than five times a week,” meaning that students are under the assumption that they are not wasting food–for this reason, a self-serve option is not an effective means of reducing food waste, because students are unaware of how much waste they produce. 

Courtesy of Madi Sandy ’25

Maya-Johnson’s findings are similar to Sandy’s and Tran’s: Students want to reduce waste, but are ill-aware of how. Although individual efforts towards creating a greener planet can appear futile at times, the collective efforts of students across campus really can facilitate change. As Sandy puts it: “Convenience is such a big part as to why people are thoughtless about where they put their trash. People are always going to choose the easier option, unless there’s an incentive. But I think it’s really important to protect the environment wherever we can. It’s a change you can do.”

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