Waste audit paints a smelly picture of Stanford's trash habits

A waste audit is exactly what it sounds like: "Auditors" fish through trash, sort out what is recyclable and analyze the habits of the building's inhabitants.

L.A. Cicero Waste audit

Student volunteers and a group from the Stanford University Medical Center worked on sorting trash in a recent waste audit at the PSSI recycling site on campus.

If we are judged by the company we keep, then the students in CEE/ES 109 are in trouble. They spent a recent afternoon in the company of empty potato chip bags, moldy orange peels, soiled paper towels and used coffee cups.

Twelve students enrolled in Green Buildings and Behavior conducted a waste audit of campus trash at the Stanford Recycling Center at Bonair Siding. The course, offered through Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Systems, is taught by Fahmida Ahmed, associate director of sustainability and energy management in the Office of Sustainability, under the auspices of Jeff Koseff, professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Woods Institute for the Environment.

A waste audit is exactly what it sounds like: "Auditors" fish through trash, sort out what is recyclable and analyze the habits of the building's inhabitants. In this case, the trash came from Geology Corner, located in the southwest corner of the Main Quad.

"Breathe through your mouth, not your nose," advised Julie Muir, recycling program manager for Peninsula Sanitary Service, the university's recycling vendor.

There was a noticeable nervous twitter as students donned the protective white lab coats and the thick plastic gloves Muir handed out. With pits, dents and stains, those gloves clearly had history.

'Never reach in somewhere you can't see'

As they grabbed their first trash bags and headed to the sorting table, students heeded Muir's warning to "never reach in somewhere you can't see." Rodents came to mind, but, fortunately, Muir was more concerned about broken glass. "Sort the whole bag, right down to the gritty stuff at the bottom!"

One bag had obviously come from a bathroom. It was filled with soiled paper towels. Here and there were soda cans that should have been recycled and empty coffee cups. Others saw more food waste in their bags. One student found a stack of papers written for a class.

Muir offered instructions on how to categorize the trash and separate it into gray bins labeled "paper towels," "organics," "bottles and cans," "soiled mixed paper" and "Styrofoam" – what she calls "white toxic stuff."

This was the 17th building audit Muir had conducted in the past 18 months, and the second for students in this class. Last week, they sorted trash from the Medical School. Muir keeps careful records of the trash from each audit (12.5 pounds of paper towels in this one) and aggregates it into a profile of Stanford waste.

And what does our waste say about us?

"We drink a lot of coffee," Muir said, as she turned to explain to a student that aerosol cans are problematic to recyclers because they explode.

"And it says we are affluent," she added, stopping to assure another student that "glossy paper is fine."

"And we like our convenience."

In fact, someone working around Geology Corner really likes Lean Cuisine.

The waste sorted by sophomore Akwasi Abrefah was wet and contained more food debris, including a dumped cup of coffee that did ugly things to banana peels. The amount of food in the waste puzzled everyone, since Geology Corner has no eatery.  Asked what he had learned from the audit, Abrefah replied, "Waste is complicated," adding, "A lot of what we throw away is actually recyclable."

In the end, that's what Fahmida Ahmed hopes the students learn from the two-unit course, which covers everything from energy use in buildings to waste, water and food. Ahmed teaches students to see the environment from a building level and to understand how habits can be changed. It is primarily a service-learning class, designed to expose students to various professions and issues in sustainability.

"The audit makes this very real for them," Ahmed said.

The information the audits reveal also is very real for Ahmed and Muir. They have used what they learn to craft better recycling messages for members of the campus community. Ahmed also sheepishly admits that the audits have other advantages: She once found a shirt that, after a solid washing, was good to wear – even to work.