Minnesota Daily Report is Pure Garbage– and Recycling: A Quality Campus Trash Investigation

Where does your school’s trash go after it’s tossed in the garbage?  The answer may surprise you.  For example, the University of Minnesota has not transported any waste to a landfill in more than a year.

Instead, according to an excellent Minnesota Daily feature this past spring, most of the school’s trash is burned in an incinerator at a nearby energy recovery center– helping produce “enough electricity for 25,000 homes each year.”

Like many big campus communities, Gopher Nation is awash in endless stacks of garbage, ludicrously high garbage spending, and even a bit of garbage money-making.  Some of the numbers: UM shells out $2 million each year to sort and gather roughly 23 million pounds of garbage.  The school also spends $600,000 on recycling, although it makes more than three-quarters of that back– in part by selling various paper, plastic, and aluminum products to companies in the state, region, and Canada.

Along with the electricity-generating incinerator, technology is changing many other facets of waste management.  One interesting example: An increase in the power of trash compactors has enabled UM to drop from five garbage trucks trolling the campus streets daily to one.

Bottom line: It’s time to root through your school’s garbage.

Guiding Questions

How much garbage does your campus produce each semester or academic year?  How do the totals compare to other area schools or schools of similar physical size or enrollment?  How much of it is recycled?  If there is a way to assess it, what types of items are tossed most often– in academic buildings, the student center, and residence halls?  How much is spent on waste management and what is the money used for?  Who is the school’s official or de facto waste manager, and what does the job entail?  What are the school’s most prominent or pressing trash challenges at the moment?  What are the ins-and-outs of the school’s recycling program?  What other environmental initiatives or student environmental organizations are currently active?  And how many trash and recycling bins can be found on campus?

New Media Ideas

1) Provide readers with trashy visuals.  Put together videos or photo slideshows of campus or local compost centers, compactors, incinerators, recycling processors, and other garbage-related arenas that typically are only smelled– not seen– by the mass public.  In each case, provide audio backdrops of related employees explaining how the facilities or technology operate.  2) Capture time-lapse video of an initial holding center for campus garbage or recyclables, as a means of visualizing how high the waste or soon-to-be-renewed goods stack up during a given day or week.  3) Construct an online map pinpointing the locations of all campus recycling bins or showing the typical garbage truck routes– supplemented by photos of the waste management employees in action at various stops.

Offbeat Ideas

1) Ride with the waste management crew during a morning shift or two, learning the proper art and etiquette of collecting, compacting, and sorting garbage and recyclables.  2) Follow a single item’s path from creation, distribution and original point of purchase to its initial use, its first trip to recycling, its reinvention, and subsequent new use.  3) Ferret out so-called junk artists, hoarders or others whose lives or work are built atop items that have been or should be trashed.  4) Keep track of how much trash you produce in a single week or other predetermined timeframe.  According to the EPA, the average American throws out 1,600 pounds of garbage per year– 4.4 pounds daily.  Yikes.

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