Consumption of Junk Food High, Recycling Down

Harvard throws away tons of recyclables every day, hurting the environment and costing the university thousands of dollars in potential savings, results from last Monday’s waste audit show.

Forty-three percent of Harvard’s trash could have been recycled, representatives from the Resource Efficiency Program and Harvard University Operation Services found after sorting through 47 trash bags in the university’s fifth annual waste audit.

While this marks an 8 percent improvement over the first audit in 1998, it is a decline of 14 percent from last year. Officials say rainy weather conditions and a different geographic sample from last year may explain the increase.

A new student group started a push earlier this fall to encourage recycling and waste reduction. The Resource Efficiency Program (REP) is spearheading a campus-wide distribution of stackable recycling baskets for 2,500 dorm rooms–one basket for paper and another for bottles and cans.

Rachelle K. Gould ’03, co-captain of REP, said students did not use the old blue bins in dorms effectively. Not only were they difficult to carry and too large for small dorm rooms, she said, but the bins made it difficult to separate paper from other recyclables. Students can take these old bins to the recycling depot for pick-up.

In Kirkland, where most of the new baskets have already been distributed, the driver who picked up recycling was astounded by the large number of cans and bottles that were recycled. According to Gould, it was the biggest amount he had seen outside of a move-out.

“We have high hopes for these baskets improving convenience and then recycling,” said Robert M. Gogan, associate manager of solid waste and recycling of the Facilities Maintenance Operations. “We think it will make recycling in the room more convenient and this has already started to happen.”

The Green Campus Loan Fund, a University endowment that finances environmental initiatives, provided $19,000 to buy the new baskets. Operations Services said they are confident they will earn the money back from savings on disposal costs.

Gogan said he was not bothered by last week’s waste audit, attributing it to the nature of the sample. Last year’s audit drew heavily from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “Radcliffe has a remarkable recycling program, and I think they might have skewed the results a little,” he said. “Also, the weather both on the sample collection days and on the day of the audit was rainy. Everything was a little damper and denser than normal.”

Last year Harvard’s recycling program diverted over 4,000 tons of trash from ending up in landfills, and Gogan estimated there are at least another 3,000 tons that the university could divert from disposal.

Aside from the ecological benefit, Gould said recycling helps the economy. Recycling saves trash disposal costs, creates jobs for the local economy and contributes to material and energy conservation. For instance, Harvard must pay $86 per ton for trash disposal, but gets paid $25 per ton of paper recycled.

If Harvard recovered only half of the paper, cans and bottles currently discarded, Gogan said, Harvard would save over $100,000 per year on trash disposal costs.

Gould worried that students might be so removed from the process that many don’t know where their trash ends up.

“Are students aware that everything they throw away is transported to a landfill in South Carolina?” she said. “Small individual choices, when made by 6,000 undergraduates, have the potential to make an enormous difference.”

Gogan said this year’s audit showed the same general breakdown of trash as previous years. By weight, Harvard’s waste contains 29 percent recyclable paper, 14 percent recyclable cans and bottles, 36 percent non-recyclable compostables and 21 percent non-recyclable non-compostables.

The audit also revealed just how much students eat in their rooms: Much of the trash from student residences was spoiled food and snack packaging.