The Complexity of Trash and the Importance of Proper Separation


The visibility of waste is actively removed from day-to-day life. Trash is a word used across various contexts that implies an undesirable object with little or no value. Waste management is, however, an incredibly important aspect of a comprehensive approach to sustainability. In the mind of an environmentally conscious individual, waste takes on a different meaning as an agent for change. 

The Colorado College Office of Sustainability’s inaugural Zero Waste Intern, Bryna Coyle, discussed the goals of the office, the reality of waste practices at Colorado College, and areas where each student can make the biggest difference. “One big project we’re working on right now is bringing compost to the apartments,” Coyle said. Currently, each apartment has a recycling and landfill bin, but upon request, the office will provide one for compost. According to Coyle, a big component of her position is education towards understanding “waste specific to our campus and how you sort it.”

Photo by Daniel Sarché

Coyle explained that “three percent of solid waste on campus” is unfortunately buried in a landfill. Although this might not seem like a lot, underground refuse releases methane gas, which is worse than carbon dioxide in terms of its long-term greenhouse effect. “Diversion rate” is the term Coyle uses to describe “when we properly sort our waste and things go to recycling and compost rather than to the landfill.” Ergo, having higher diversion rates directly correlates with decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions. 

Each category of waste takes a similar journey to its respective destination. The waste bins are first collected from campus buildings by Sodexo, the hospitality company to which CC outsources waste management. Bestway trash services then collects the waste from each dumpster. Recycling is taken to the Colorado Springs Material Recovery Facility, bundled by material type and sold for reuse. Compost is delivered to Midway Landfill, where it is placed into windrows. Finally, landfill waste is buried. 

This outcome trifecta seems simple enough, but becomes complicated when students dispose of waste without the necessary intentionality. To quote Coyle, “Colorado College as a campus is one of Bestway’s worst offenders when it comes to contaminated recycling.” What this means is that the bins meant to collect recyclables also contain landfill and compostable items. When the contaminate material exceeds 20 percent the entire bin is then diverted to the landfill and buried, creating avoidable methane emissions. In order for us to take full advantage of sustainable systems in place, the responsibility begins with students as active, thoughtful participants in the waste disposal process, taking the time to ask and understand what goes where. 

Potential reasoning for the lackadaisical approach to waste disposal are the recent rumors circulating around the sorting practices of Sodexo employees. Bryna confirms the biggest complaint she receives is that a student will see an employee take out “all three bins – compost, landfill, and recycling – and put them all in the same bin,” resulting in the belief that “it doesn’t even matter if we sort our waste if it’s all going to the same place.” Although this is perhaps how it appears, if you walk through with an employee of Sodexo, they have systems in place to keep those bags separate. For example, many employees will put one knot in the recycling bag, two in landfill, and leave the compost bag open. These bags are then re-sorted at the Bestway collection dumpsters.

During a Sodexo waste collection walk through on March 4, 2019, Don Shalley completed his usual routine. This included going the extra mile to manage student mistakes by helping to eyeball and re-sort improperly handled waste. Currently, Bestway has an 80/20 single stream plan, allowing for bags containing 80 percent recycling or compost and 20 percent contaminate to remain divertible. This is a great development, said Shalley, as it was formerly required that our recycling and compost be 100 percent pure, resulting in greater percentages of landfill waste. 

The first bag Shalley sorted was from a recycling bin, but contained 50/50 landfill and recycling waste. This unfortunately meant that the entire bag had to be placed into the landfill dumpster. This is a problem he’s seen a lot more this year, as well as liquids being dumped in all types of collection bins. This, Shalley says, “really kills the whole process.” For example, if recyclable material is too wet when it reaches the Material Recovery Facility, it will be rendered unusable.  

One final misconception revolves around the fact that Colorado Springs does not have the capacity for industrial composting. As a result, a narrative has arisen claiming that all of CC’s compost ends up in the landfill. This is incorrect. All adequately sorted compostable waste is sent to the windrow system, apart from the Eco cups used by Bon Appetit, which would require industrial composting capabilities to adequately break down the material. Instead, these are sorted out by Sodexo and recycled. Coyle says that “there are certain efforts to address that infrastructure, whether it be purchasing an industrial composter” or through Bon Appetit’s ultimate goal of moving towards higher usage rates of reusables. 

As students, the important takeaway from the efforts of the Office of Sustainability, Sodexo, and Bon Appetit is that systems that can mitigate the impact of waste production have been made available to us. The responsibility lies in the hands of CC students to best honor and take advantage of the work being done by reclaiming the importance of trash. This does not just include properly sorting waste, but thoughtfully engaging with the Office of Sustainability, Bon Appetit, and the Colorado College administration by asking questions and offering ideas for further change and improvement. 

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