Students dressed head-to-toe in white DuPont haz-mat suits on the library lawn yesterday morning were not cleaning up a toxic waste spill or dealing with aliens or plutonium; they were recycling trash.
They were members of the University of Massachusetts Eco-Rep program, recycling for the “Trash Sort 2012.”
The Eco-Rep program is a two-credit program where students try to make the Maherst campus more sustainable by raising student awareness on issues like recycling.
The unique attire was partially worn for cleanliness, but the haz-mat suit clad, shovel-wielding volunteers were trying to stand out and grab the attention of passersby.
Eco-Rep Program Manager Chris Hewes told the group of about 20 members working the first shift of the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. event to either grab a suit or talk to the ”freaked-out” students walking by and explain why recycling on campus is important.
Trash Sort started Monday with the delivery of 42 large green trash bins taken out of the residence halls. Rather than sending the trash to the waste management plant in Springfield like a regular morning, the Office of Waste Management brought the bins to the 40-yard-long tarp on the library lawn. It was then dumped out, one bin at a time, so the Eco-Rep volunteers could separate out the recyclables and properly dispose of them.
Campus Sustainability Manager Ezra Small, one of the planners behind the event, said that while UMass is very good at recycling, improvements could be made.
“We want to make sure that students are informed and know how to do the right thing, and the right thing is making sure that they recycle whenever they can and reduce their waste,” he said.
Although he said that UMass currently recycles 56 percent of all waste, from dorm room garbage to mattresses, metal and wood, he wants to get residence hall recycling up by 10 to 15 percent.
“We do well, but we can always do better… especially in the residence hall,” Small said. He pointed to outreach and the new single stream recycling program as a possible solution.
“There is some confusion [about the new recycling program, but] it is just the matter of getting the information out there,” he said. “We have 5,000 printed guidelines that we have to get up in the residence halls … the bureaucracy we have here takes a while to get things going.”
Trash Sort is all about finding out how the new recycling system is being used; testing how well the new recycling system is working and seeing how many recyclables residence hall residents are throwing away. The sorted recyclables will be weighed, as well as the total amount of trash sorted to determine what percentage of salvageable materials is being tossed out.
In a 2010 audit of 640 pounds of trash coming from 18 residence halls, the Office of Waste Management found 7.19 percent or 46 pounds of mixed paper and 16.41 percent or 105 pounds of bottles and cans that could have been recycled, according to a report put together by Office of Waste Management Manager John Pepi.
Small said the Trash Sort is a great test for what could become the third largest residence life recycling program in the country after the Commonwealth Honors College dormitories are completed.
“It’s exciting because we get to see how successful or not successful our new single-stream recycling program is going on campus, especially in the residence halls, that’s their biggest concern because that’s where most of the education needs to be done, because all these residence halls have different trash-rooms set up and it makes it a challenge to get the right signage up, the right bin placement,” he said.
Hewes, 20, agreed and said that that is why he has been planning this event for almost two months.
“The Eco-rep program was looking for an event to do on campus, and we knew this had been successful in the past,” he said. “And with the implementation of our new single-stream recycling program campus-wide we wanted to see if we are seeing a decrease in the amount of recyclable material that was found in the trash; we’re hoping people are more aware of recycling because office of waste management has been doing a lot in the past couple years to try to raise awareness of recycling; we are hoping to find less trash since the last time this was done.”
Similar events had been planned and executed in the past. Last year’s was rained out and this year’s had a built in rain date for Wednesday, but Hewes said he picked it for more than just the single-system implementation aspect and thinks it is a good training exercise for the young Eco-Rep group members.
Last year the Eco-Rep program had only about 30 to 40 students involved. Small and Hewes lobbied at the New Student Orientation and now have over 65 students involved, including many off-campus students for the first time.
Hewes called the Trash Sort a good training for the Eco-Reps, to give them interactions with public and peers and help them become “agents of social change”.
Southwest Residence Area sophomore Valentina Valsquez joined Eco-Rep after seeing a poster in the Dining Common to become one of those agents of change.
For Trash Sort, she stood outside the library handing out bumper stickers saying “Making Sustainability Sexy – Eco-Rep” and talking to students about what was happening on the lawn.
“Hopefully people realize how much recycling they don’t do and learn that [they] can help,” she said about students walking past the piles of trash.
Fellow Eco-Rep sophomore and Biochemistry major Alanna McLaughlin, was also talking to students outside the library. She said that more students should take advantage of the easy recycling at UMass.
“If we have a recycling program why not do it, a little extra can’t hurt,” she said. “Hopefully if they see all the trash that wasn’t recycled they’ll think about it.”
Sam Hayes can be reached at [email protected]