featured, Nov2017
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Recycling Reboot

Can you tell me about the waste audits you ran last year?

We took all of the waste collected over a 24 hour period, and ran two audits based on that waste from the upper campus two different times in the year. I was looking specifically for contamination in each stream. There’s six different types of waste disposal on upper campus and the residences, so seeing where people would throw them out correctly and incorrectly. For example, how many compostable items end up in a containers or landfill stream. We had each group of garbage separated by stream, and within each stream we would sort the different components looking for what should be where.

Do you have any numbers from the audits?

I have the important numbers! Because of the small number of samples I couldn’t calculate any sort of significance, but the most worrisome contamination numbers were actually from the landfill. Which is interesting, because most people are worried about recycling, like “we can’t contaminate the recycling” but we’re below 5% contamination on all of our recycling and compost streams, but the landfill stream in the residences was 64% contaminated.

So materials that were in the landfill that should have gone elsewhere?

Yes, that should have been recycled or composted. So landfill in the Peaks and Villages was 64% contaminated. On upper campus it was 74% contaminated, and this doesn’t include any sort of facilities waste, this is just students throwing out garbage. So it’s close to 70% total contamination across campus.

The problem with this is that when Carney’s Waste Systems comes and picks up any of our garbage, they have their employees just look at the contamination, and if they can see visually that it’s way too contaminated it goes straight to the landfill as opposed to being sorted. They have two tip fees, which is how much they charge the school based on what type of garbage they’re processing.  One tip fee is called mixed waste, which is contaminated landfill waste.

Every time they come pick up our dumpsters they weigh it on the floor and charge us per tonne, but because of the contamination of the waste they’re charging us $320/tonne, whereas if we had properly sorted, as in less than 5% landfill contamination, we’d only get charged $150/tonne. Last year, Quest spent $9,021 on waste, which could decrease by 88% if we were able to reduce landfill contamination to less than 5%.

Do you know what happens to the waste that the Caf produces?

Yeah, so I’m actually working with a Dana staff member who said “We need to change this dish pit situation because it’s awful” and I was like “I know! It’s just not my jurisdiction”. So we’re collaborating for a better situation for that area. The dish pit area was much more contaminated last year, I can see the difference just by going into the caf and looking in the bins. Again, we didn’t measure their waste output during the audits because that wasn’t part of the student side of things, but regardless, we’re still being charged the mixed waste fee when waste is collected.

How does your waste audit from last year influence the new recycling program this year?

So in addition to those waste audits I have been working as a custodian making my own observations. I did a pilot study in a quantitative research methods class and I just sat outside a garbage station for three days changing the signs around. On my first day I made sure all the bins were properly sorted, and I took all the covers off the lids to see if people would look inside to see where they should throw stuff out, but they just followed the signs. It progressed through to my final day where I removed all the signs and just left items in the bins, to get people to look inside. It seemed like when people were confused, they’d look inside all the bins to see where it should go. So from that I was seeing that my interventions were creating a huge difference.

You’ll notice the new recycling stream doesn’t contain a garbage bin, and this involves some literature reviews I’ve done  that suggested that having descriptive media is really important. If you’re approaching a station that has three bins, black, blue, and green, blue is obviously recyclables which most people have a general idea of what that contains, and green is generally compost. But garbage ends up being  anything that you can’t clearly put into recyclables or compost. If you don’t know what recyclables and compost are, if that line is fuzzy, you’re just going to throw it in the garbage because you don’t want to  contaminate the recycling and compost stream. So instead you contaminate the landfill stream which is much worse for our economic and environmental impact in Squamish.

I was trying create a more critical engagement with the waste stations through the signs, and I think that has succeeded, but my real motive was to get compostable items out of the landfill. I have seen just on my garbage runs that the number of organic items in the soft plastic stream has significantly dropped. So any sort of lingering confusion, like those squishy sandwich containers from the caf, that just comes down to a bit more on the education side. The really basic value of getting people to think about their item just a little bit more, and seeing that diversion of organics back into where it should be has been really important.

So how did you get started with recycling and garbage programs? How did Sam become the person to talk to about this?

In my high school I had a guidance counselor and teacher that headed all of our recycling things. In Ontario, where I’m from, it’s mandatory for all institutions with over 800 regular attendants to run waste audits. When I came out to British Columbia I did a research project in my political economy class, and I was trying to look up waste audit data for Quest, because I assumed that if Ontario had it, BC would as well. But I found that this data didn’t exist. However, Krystle Tenbrink and Angela Robinson were like “We should totally collect this data, we need it!” and I thought well, if you guys give me permission and tarps, I can run one.

So I ran a couple in my second semester of first year. It was great, my friends showed up and helped me sort garbage, but I was very frustrated because I put together reports and analyzed the data, but it felt like it was going nowhere. Then Rich Wildman and I had a conversation that ended up with him saying “Hey, there’s extra money for keystone grants that not everyone applied for. Do you want some money to do more waste audits?” Of course I said yes. So with him and Krystle I developed a strategy and wrote a report. Because of this, I’ve been able to bring some pressure to facilities and administration to say “Look, these are the financials, this is why we need to change the system”.

Is this work related to your Question or Keystone at all, or is it completely separate?

A little bit. I’m interested in urban planning and design. My question is concerned about what makes spaces useful to people, and then how do people’s behaviours change based on the spaces that they’re in, that sort of thing. So it is relevant in the way that when I’m changing the infrastructure through media, which is part of my three step plan to improve waste management.  I’m changing the social and public space that people are engaging with. I get to actually document how behaviour is changing through my observation of people’s choices, and of course the weighing of the actual waste after the fact. My keystone project might be related, it might not. I don’t know what my keystone project is yet!

Now that we have these new recycling stations, how do we get the people who aren’t interested in waste at all to become involved in sorting their waste?

The whole point of a media campaign is to make it easier for people to comply with what you want them to, which sounds manipulative and it is. You make it easy, so that those who are conscious of their choices can think and give feedback, and those who don’t care can still comply. We’ve tried education campaigns in North America, we all know to recycle and be good to the environment, but what does that really mean? It really means institutionalisation [of environmental programs], in my perspective.

We can only put so much onus on the people to change their behaviour. We really have to make it easy for them to do what is correct. So by having descriptive signs and saying “if you have this item, put it here” I’m making it easier for people. In this model it’s ideal of course if people think and are critical about their choices, but as long they’re listening to the signs, that’s the base thing. And them listening to it shouldn’t be much of their responsibility, but more the system’s responsibility to make it easy for them to do so. That’s how I see it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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