The next time you toss an apple core or coffee cup into an Ivory Tower recycling bin, GW might find out.
Staffers from the University’s sustainability office will spend the next few months sifting through recycling bins across campus to pick out the most common trash items contaminating each bin. Officials say the effort, which is being spearheaded by GW’s first zero-waste intern Michelle Stuhlmacher, will help GW meet its ambitious target of cutting its waste by 50 percent over the next three years.
As Stuhlmacher digs into the recycling bins and “audits” the trash, she will take note of food items, wrappers and other trash. Those extra, non-recyclable items mean that GW has to dispose of the entire bin in a landfill instead of recycling it.
Stuhlmacher said her work will help decrease GW’s landfill, “standardize our trash and recycling operations, reduce contamination, and provide more efficient services to the GW community.”
The office will then write a report outlining areas in which GW needs to improve to meet its 2017 goal, and its ultimate ambition of becoming waste-free on campus. Stuhlmacher, an intern, joins two other staffers who were hired by the Division of Operations this year to help GW achieve its goal of being waste-neutral.
“This way we can figure out what’s currently working, what’s sort of working, what’s not working, so that when we build a final plan, it makes sense for both our community and the locations,” said Shannon Ross, who oversees the office’s stakeholder engagement.
The office has also moved campus to a recycling system that allows more items to be recycled that weren’t allowed previously – from plastics to paper – in the same bins. Officials also added solar-powered bins on campus that crush waste in the bins to allow more to fit, decreasing the amount of pickups needed.
GW saw an uptick in the percent of its trash that was recycled last year, about 25 percent more compared to 2012. But the community also consumed about 10 percent more pounds of waste over that same time.
Helen Lee, American University’s zero waste director, said auditing waste on a comprehensive scale is the best way to go forward with producing zero waste – and has helped that school stay on track to meet their goal by 2020.
“To get to zero waste, you need to really understand what’s in your waste stream and conduct waste audits every year,” Lee said.
She said students volunteer to sort waste every year, piling paper cups in one corner and coffee stirrers in another, to help improve the university promote certain items to be composted.
For example, after their 2010 audit, officials could see that a large amount of paper towel were being used in restrooms and soon after switched over to a biodegradable towel that could be composted.
-Chloé Sorvino contributed to this report.