BAR HARBOR, Maine — Every fall, one week’s worth of trash and recycling generated at the College of the Atlantic is collected, sorted and displayed under a tent on the school’s North Lawn so students and others can learn more about what they’re throwing away.
Amongst the fruit flies and the small mountains of flattened cardboard boxes from Amazon orders, work-study students armed with plastic gloves and a good attitude noted this season that their classmates seem to be changing their approach to trash.
In 2014, when the annual discarded resources audit began, trash made up 55 percent of the material collected, or 1,151 pounds. Last year, the trash collected made up nearly 40 percent of the material, or 930 pounds. And that decline continued this fall, with trash making up just 30 percent of the collected material, or 577 pounds. That decline is great news for Lisa Bjerke, the school’s discarded resources manager and self-proclaimed “garbologist.”
“We’re super happy about the diversion [or recycling] rate climbing,” she said on Friday. “We think it has to do with infrastructure, better signage, better bins and better access. Everyone wants to do the right thing. It just has to be easy to do the right thing.”
One thing that wasn’t easy this year, she said, was getting correct trash audit data. Originally, the trash was scheduled to be collected from Monday, Oct. 3 to Monday, Oct. 10. The college’s contracted trash hauler would skip its two scheduled dumpster pickups, so that Bjerke and her student workers could collect it under the tent, then spend the next week weighing, sorting and displaying it. But that’s not what happened. Due to a miscommunication, the hauler skipped the first trash pickup, but not the second, leaving the group with data that erroneously showed the amount of trash thrown away on campus had dropped precipitously.
When Bjerke learned what actually happened, it was disappointing. But she didn’t stay down in the dumps for long.
“It was a bummer for the first few hours. Then it was an opportunity to have some honest conversations,” she said. “How much time can we put into this?”
They decided to do the audit again, collecting the trash for another week and making sure that everyone — students and trash hauler alike — knew what was going on. Bjerke thinks it’s possible that the second audit provided more accurate data, since if students had chosen not to throw anything out during the first weeklong audit, she believes it’s unlikely they would have kept that up for the second week.
“In the end, I think it worked out really well,” Bjerke said. “I think the students got an opportunity to redo it and to relearn it. When you do something a second time, you really get it.”
The glitch also served as more evidence to show that managing discards is a messy, complicated process. It’s also something a lot of people don’t bother to think about much.
“Normally, this is hidden. You put it in a dumpster and it’s ‘away,’” Bjerke said in October as she looked at the discarded and recycled material all around her. “But when you throw things away, where do they go?”
The audit aims to shine light on what the campus throws out and where it ends up. About 350 students attend the small liberal arts college perched on the ocean’s edge, and about 150 of them live on campus. The trash audit includes recycling and waste collected from dormitories, the cafeteria and from classrooms. It did not include food scraps from the dining hall or the other organic material that the college composts at its farm — there’s a compost bucket placed in every dorm, she said. Compostable material comprises more than 40 percent of what is in the trash bags of most Mainers, according to a 2011 study from the University of Maine, so its disappearance from the trash bags at the College of the Atlantic is a reason to cheer, she said.
“It’s good news,” she said.
Still, in the recycled material collected under the tent on the North Lawn, including the cans and bottles lined up like soldiers at attention and plastic bags stuffed full of shredded paper, Bjerke sees opportunities to do much more.
“This is the hidden part of our global economy right here,” she said. “When you say ‘recycling,’ you might think the things will be used as the same thing again. But that isn’t what happens.”
In fact, the process of turning recycled material into something new is very energy intensive. That’s why instead of the commonly heard catchphrase “reduce, reuse, recycle,” Bjerke wants to go beyond that, adding in extra “Rs” such as “refuse, repair and reaching out to educate others.” The college will continue to look at where the recycled material and discarded material actually goes, so it’s not just out of sight and out of mind, and keep on striving towards an ultimate goal of reducing waste by 90 percent from a baseline set in 2014.
“It’s all about getting used to behavioral shifts,” Bjerke said.