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Sustainability Students Sift Through City College's Waste Bins

By Kaitlyn Lawrence

HARLEM, Feb. 9-- Students enrolled in Dr. Stephanie Rose’s Principles of Environmental Science class participated in a first of its kind waste audit at the City College of New York (CCNY). Wearing Tyvek suits and equipped with gloves and garbage grabbers, they debated the coatings and food residues that made each item recyclable or not.

The purpose of the audit was to assess City College’s trash and recycling to determine how students, faculty, and staff’s recycling behaviors may be improved. Trash and recycling were collected from the 6th and 7th floors of the North Academic Center (NAC) and the Rotunda area right outside.

As students sorted and weighed 98 kilograms of trash and recycling from around the NAC, coffee cups and printer paper were sprawled out on the floor and sorted into bags at the NAC’s loading dock.

“This is why I hate plastic.” complained one of the audit’s leaders, Oscar Guatemala, as he encountered yet another Type 6 single-use coffee cup lid. Sustainability-minded people like Guatemala disapprove of using of Type 6 plastic in single-use products because recycling facilities rarely buy it so it is rarely recycled, even when properly disposed of.

Alex Klein and Oscar Guatemala are graduate students in CCNY’s Masters in Sustainability program. Klein works for the environmental organization GrowNYC, and Oscar is an energy consultant for owners and users of commercial real estate. Data collected in the audit will serve as a baseline measurement in Guatemala and Klein’s thesis work on the success of strategies to seperate different kinds of waste, referred to in the scientific community as waste diversion strategies.

“The waste audit is more to see what type of waste is being generated,” Klein said. “So it’s more to guide our intervention, ... so we can actually target specific behaviors we’re seeing and specific contaminants.”

Klein and Guatemala led a brief informational session before the audit and showed students enrolled in Dr. Stephanie Rose’s class how to separate the trash and recycling into 3 categories– paper, MGPC (metals, glass, plastic, and cartons), and trash.

“I was surprised by the recycling rates and diversion rates - they were much higher than I expected!” Alex Klein said. The audit found that 85% of every pound of waste studied was placed in a proper bin. The audit also found that 70% of the properly sorted waste would be sent to a materials recovery center where the items would become candidates for recycling.

However, the researchers warn people to consider the initial findings with caution. Klein expressed concern that “there was probably more trash from [the sixth and seventh] floors that did not make it to the loading dock, so the true diversion rate is probably lower.”

The Campus Race to Zero Waste competition will occur in tandem with Guatemala and Klein’s thesis work. “The competition was a way to be a part of the national community on this and get some more resources,” Klein said. He added that the competition will help his team determine where CCNY stands in relation to other college campuses.

The team hopes that the audit, the intervention strategy, and CCNY’s entry into a national waste reduction competition may inspire a change in how the college community makes and handles waste. “I think we’re trying to bring light to the link between waste and environmental harms.” Klein said.

“Among the general population, but especially at City College, there’s just a lot of curiosity about this topic,” he continued. “People aren’t really sure about what’s recyclable and what isn’t, and what does get recycled and what doesn’t.”

When asked about why he chose to focus his master’s thesis work on waste diversion, Klein explained that in New York City, growing garbage generation rates aren’t just an environmental issue. “A lot of the waste transfer stations in New York City are in historically disadvantaged communities with really high asthma rates. Some of the rail lines that bring waste out of the city block parts of the South Bronx waterfront that could be developed.”

Members of the campus community should be on the lookout for new signage and modifications to the recycling centers and garbage bin placements in the rotunda and on the 6th and 7th floors of the NAC.

Those interested in learning more about how waste generation contributes to global warming can plan to attend the Decarbonization CCNY Forum on March 23rd in Steinman 116, where waste will be among the topics discussed.


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