A bird's eye view of the trash we produce at Concordia

Members of the Global Development Studies trash audit team weigh garbage at the end of a school day.

Members of the Global Development Studies trash audit team weigh garbage at the end of a school day.

by George S., Corey Z., Aaron Y., Kwok Chi C., Jeremy N.

Let’s make this clear: at the beginning of the semester, no one in the Concordia community had any real understanding of the waste disposal and recycling systems on our campus. Over the last couple of months, our Global Development Studies group has been collecting and compiling data to develop this understanding, so we can understand how much trash we produce and come up with solutions to improve our practices. This article explores the research we’ve conducted, how we can understand it, and why our current waste systems need to be reformed.

Three Types of Trash

         By studying the current waste disposal and recycling systems at Concordia, it is clear we should categorize the trash at Concordia into three distinct types. For a period of two weeks, our group found values for the mass of trash of each type of trash and we have generated graphs to show how much of each type we’re producing.

The first category of trash is recycled waste. All recycled waste is handled and managed by a Sodexo employee, Mr. Gao, who hand-picks pieces of trash that can be recycled and sells them to a recycling distribution center biweekly. At the recycling center, the goods are cleaned and repackaged to be distributed to other factories. The mass of recycled waste was reported to us directly by Mr. Gao whenever he went to the center.

Pallets of recycled paper at the informal recycling center close to Concordia.

Pallets of recycled paper at the informal recycling center close to Concordia.

The second category of trash we produce is kitchen waste, which is any waste generated from the catering locations on campus, whether it be the PC Commons, Cafe, or ES Cafeteria. Kitchen waste is kept separate from dry waste, but we don’t know where it goes after it’s collected. The mass of kitchen waste was estimated based on the number of bins that were filled with food waste at the end of each day.

The final category of trash we produce at Concordia is general, or domestic waste, or general waste, anything that’s thrown into a big blue trash bin around school. Every morning, domestic waste is, unfortunately, delivered to an incinerator nearby. The mass of domestic waste was also the most arduous to gather. For a period of two weeks, group members met at the trash collection station at campus at 8:30pm to weigh, by hand, the trash bags for that day. It was a difficult process, but what we were able to find out was well worth the effort.

So How Much Trash Do We Produce? And What Do We Recycle?

Based on the mass we measured for each category, we were able to generate the graph below. Each bar represents the total amount of trash produced in a given week, labeled in white. The colors represent the three categories defined earlier. The black number is the percentage of the total trash that we recycle.

Two weeks’ worth of data reveals that we produce a staggering 3,000 kg of trash each week at Concordia.

Two weeks’ worth of data reveals that we produce a staggering 3,000 kg of trash each week at Concordia.

3,000 kilograms of trash. Every week. That’s what we generate here at Concordia. And it’s unsustainable. As can be seen at the top of each bar, there’s a tiny sliver of yellow that represents how little we recycle. Of the total waste we produce, we only recycle two to three per cent. Of the total dry waste we produce, only four to six per cent. We can do better than that.

Taking a deeper look into what we recycle, we found that almost all of what Concordia recycles is paper or cardboard. The largest source of paper recycling is contributed by GIN members, who have placed boxes in each high school classrooms for used or unwanted paper. Every two weeks, they deliver this paper directly to Mr. Gao to recycle. Although efforts such as these are steps in the right direction, this data points out two huge flaws in our recycling system.

Because of student groups like GIN, the high school has already done a comparably good job of reducing the amount of waste we produce and is the most sustainable of the three divisions. However, while working with Mr. Gao, we discovered that the lower and intermediate divisions of Concordia are recycling a lot less than they could be. This is mainly because the lower divisions don’t have the same sustainability programs and groups that the high school does. Also, the students are younger, so they may be less aware of the need to throw trash in the proper bins.

Another flaw is that, aside from paper, we don’t recycle much. Taking paper completely out of the picture, Concordia only recycles two to five kilograms of aluminum or plastic every week. That’s barely anything. Granted, we have significantly reduced the amount of plastic we use in the last couple of years, but we can still do better.

When we sampled blue domestic waste bins around campus, we discovered that at least 20 per cent of what we throw away can be recycled. Comparing that to the numbers before, this means that we have the potential to recycle up to 20 per cent of our trash, but we only end up recycling 4 to 6 per cent. So why do we recycle so little of what we could?

We could be recycling 20 per cent of the items in our general trash bins but are currently only recycling approximately 2 per cent.

We could be recycling 20 per cent of the items in our general trash bins but are currently only recycling approximately 2 per cent.

At present, the largest, and most pressing, issue with recycling is contamination. Contamination happens when non-recyclable trash mixes with recyclable trash, rendering what could have been recycled useless. This happens most commonly with food waste, in which the oils or juices from take-out containers leak into the trash bags. This issue has been growing over the last few years as the volume of takeout orders to our campus has increased. Often, once a trash bag is contaminated, nothing in that bag can be recycled anymore. This is the reason that separation between wet and dry waste is crucial for future reform.

The other reason that we recycle so little is because of the improper sorting of trash when throwing garbage away. Similar to contamination, students are often indifferent what bins they use. When we throw used tissues and unfinished food into recycling bins, we effectively negate the purpose of having categorized trash bins. When these bins are contaminated, they have to be disposed of with the rest of the domestic waste, where, as mentioned before, Mr. Gao picks out recyclable pieces by hand. This is hugely inefficient, yet it can be solved with small behavioral changes across our community.

Right now, our waste disposal system faces problems that are both complex and simple. Our goal should be to focus on the latter. We now have the data; now it’s up to you to change the way you act. All it takes is tossing your plastic in the right bin. With small ripples of reform like this, we can create a cascade of sustainability at Concordia. 

A typical bin of unsorted trash in the high school.

A typical bin of unsorted trash in the high school.

LeeAnne Lavender