I spent the morning wearing a yellow Tyvek suit, rubber gloves and protective eye-wear, sorting bags of school trash into bins with labels such as “office paper,” “non-recyclable paper,” “food,” “#1 and #2 plastic bottles” and “true trash.” There were about 20 of us participating in the trash sort at the county transfer station and recycling facility. We were there to sort two days’-worth of trash and recycling from six public schools, three in Minneapolis and three in nearby suburbs. The point of the sort is to research what exactly gets recycled by schools and what could be recycled but gets thrown in the trash instead. Once you’ve separated absolutely everything that can go someplace other than the garbage burner or landfill (we sorted into 18 categories), the amount of “true trash” is minimal. Without knowing the outcome of the study, I would hazard to guess that “true trash” amounted to less than 25% of the total. It might be more like 10%. As we filled the individual bins with materials from each school, they were carefully weighed and the weights recorded for later data analysis and feedback to the six schools.
According to John Jaimez from Hennepin County’s Department of Environmental Services, one of the project’s lead organizers, this kind of school trash sort has not been done before. Anywhere in the country. We’re breaking new ground.
While examining trash from two elementary, two middle and two high schools – one of each from the city and the suburbs – will yield a fairly representative sample, those of us participating today represented an exceedingly narrow cross-section of the population at large. I was among true garbage geeks, many of whom work in Environmental Services for Hennepin County or for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, others of us who work to boost neighborhood or school recycling and composting efforts.
While I may have lost my appetite (one bag of lunch trash was thoroughly coated with marinara sauce), I gained a hands-on appreciation for the fact that most of what we throw away is not “true garbage” but true waste: materials that could be put to further use, either as new products, such as plastics and paper, or as compost to improve our soil. What separates geeks like me who sort their trash at home (and elsewhere) from those who don’t is education and effort.