Hey you! Do you buy stuff? Do you buy stuff in packaging? Well of course you do!
Okay, now do you recycle some of that packaging? Do you know where your recycling goes? If you have municipal composting, do you know where the compost goes once it has finished decomposing?
In the go-go-go society in America today, most people don’t ask questions about where their sneakers or lettuce comes from, let alone asking where their curbside recycling goes or taking the time to figure out what happens to their old computer after they’re done with it. While the problem of what to do with waste affects people across the world, the matter of improper electronics disposal is resulting in e-waste being dumped in 3rd world countries where reclaimers with little to no training or safety gear release toxic materials into the air, soil, and waterways.
But this post isn’t about e-waste (perhaps I’ll write such a post soon). I’m currently interested in what’s happening with recycling and composting at Dartmouth College as I work at the Dartmouth College Interactive Media Lab. Dartmouth has a long tradition of sustainability and commitment to recycling and composting. The Dartmouth Outing Club has had an Environmental Studies club since the 1960s, and Dartmouth now has a new sustainablity website and a Sustainability Initiative to reduce the environmental footprint of Dartmouth.
Dartmouth has an extensive recycling program. In addition to accepting the usual assortment of tin cans, aluminum, milk jugs, paper, and cardboard, I have been amazed that Dartmouth accepts plastics #1 – #7. To put this in perspective, most recyclers will accept only a subset of #1 and #2 plastics. By accepting all plastics from #1 – #7, Dartmouth makes it possible to recycle styrofoam cups and bricks, plastic bags, #5 cups and yogurt containers, pvc bottles and pipe, and a wide variety of packaging materials that would otherwise have to go in the trash.
How do they do this? I’m really not sure. Magic gnomes? 🙂 I’m currently trying to set up a tour of the recycling facility so I can see first-hand how Dartmouth deals with this part of their waste stream. If Dartmouth has figured out how to effectively recycle a wide range of plastics, perhaps we can figure out how to take these methods and apply them at other college campuses and in municipal recycling programs across the U.S.
Dartmouth’s composting program is equally impressive. Starting with all of the food waste from the dining halls, which in stark contrast to ordinary household compost bins may include meat, bones, fats, and oils, Dartmouth also puts composting bins in the kitchens of the residence halls and offers compost bins and pickup for each of the fraternities and sororities on campus. All of this compost makes its way to a special composting facility run by the College which takes in compostables and turns out high-quality compost.
In addition to taking waste from the College, the composting facility also takes waste from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC). Food waste from the DHMC dining halls used to be ground up and sent down the sewer, which apparently was very taxing on the Hanover Waste Treatment Plant and required the use of large quantities of chemicals. Now that most of the food waste at DHMC is taken to the composting facility, less chemicals need to be used for processing. Unfortunately, only food waste from the main cafeteria is composted. Food waste at the satellite Colburn Hill cafeteria is not composted, and I’m going to guess that food waste from the restaurants in the food court area is also not composted.
With a bit more work I believe that we can divert all of the food waste at DHMC to the composting facility. I’ve had some communication with the sustainability coordinator for the hospital and it sounds like there’s still some groundwork that needs to be laid in order to make it possible to sort and pick up and deliver and, well, do all of those niggling little details to make composting possible. Like most things, it’s just a matter of making sure that we’re constantly taking little steps towards composting all of the food waste at DHMC.
I’ve also been interested in progress at Dartmouth and DHMC in moving from disposable plastic to-go containers and styrofoam plates to reusable dishes and compostable plates, to-go containers, and cups. Many dining halls and cafeterias on the two campuses have reusable dishes but still serve a lot of food in to-go containers by default. While it’s nice to have to-go containers available, in order to reduce the amount of waste the dining halls should serve all food on reusable dishes, only using to-go containers if specifically asked.
Because there are dining halls and concession stands that do not have dishwashing facilities, some locations will need to serve all of their food on disposable dishes. Reusable dishes are neither economically nor environmentally viable in certain situations (e.g. sporting events, locations far away from dishwashers), so in those cases we should choose compostable dishes instead.
Of course, in order to maximize the benefit of using compostable dishes, Dartmouth and DHMC should strive to educate their communities about composting and sustainability. The more that students, faculty, staff, and the general public are thinking about recycling and composting, the greater success we’ll have diverting waste from the landfill. It would be great to see Dartmouth Dining Services (DDS) serve all of the food concessions at a Dartmouth football game in recyclable or compostable packaging and then to see all of that waste end up properly sorted in the right waste bins. Are we going to get 100% participation? No, certainly not. Are we going to have problems with contamination and apathy? Certainly. But there are certain things that can be done to increase interest, education, and participation.
So get on out there and start asking some questions about recycling in your town or at your school or workplace. I’m sure you’ll learn something interesting and useful, and you just might spur people into recycling and composting more. You’ve got to be kind and courteous, but you also need to be persistent. Change isn’t going to happen because you write a letter or send an email to someone. Change is going to happen because you write a followup letter a couple of weeks later, and then you give them a phone call a week after that. Change is going to happen because you talk passionately about the issues with other people. Change is going to happen because you write a blog post in which you describe your mission, define your goals, and show others how to participate. Quite simply, change is going to happen because of you.