Some students walking through the parking lot between the William Pitt Union and Towers Patio Wednesday morning said they thought they were witnessing a remake of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
A cobalt blue tarp was set up under the cloudless sky, and students in white puffy Tyvek jumpsuits surrounded the trash sorting the contents of the bags. The smell of pungent trash filled students’ nostrils as they strolled through the quad.
“I thought they were rummaging through trash to see if there were any alcohol bottles in it,” first-year undeclared major Jacob Gallagher said as he and a friend stepped outside Bruce Hall to investigate the stench.
In fact, there was only one wine bottle in the pile labeled “Barco Law Building,” which a volunteer placed into a white bag for recycling.
The tarps and trash piles were part of an annual “waste audit,” where students measured the amount and type of waste produced in different buildings on campus — although the results have not yet been released. The audit was the final event for Recyclemania, an eight-week program with more than 300 colleges and universities across the country competing to see who creates the least amount of waste during the time frame. Free the Planet, an environmental student advocacy group, partnered with the Office of Facilities Management to wrap up Pitt’s eighth Recyclemania event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Last year, Pitt came in 64th place, with a recycling rate of close to 43 percent and about 25 pounds of waste per person. Nationwide, participating schools, including Pitt, recycled 79.3 million pounds. Currently, according to Recyclemania, Pitt is averaging about a 5 percent increase in its recycling rate from last year.
Will Mitchell, Pitt’s senior manager of custodial services, said the exercise was a visual representation that Pitt students could stroll by to see how much waste they produce, and more importantly, how well or poorly they sort it.
Students collected the garbage bags from trash containers in Pitt’s busiest buildings — including the Barco Law Building, Lothrop Hall, Tower C and Hillman Library — and brought it to the tarp in the quad to start sorting. Within a half hour, there were sizeable piles of trash splayed on the tarp that slowly dwindled down once they were sorted into three different categories — trash, recyclable and compost.
“Honestly, this waste is nothing in comparison to what [facilities management] sees during move-in and move-out week — those are our busiest times of the year,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and Nick Goodfellow, the sustainability coordinator for Pitt Dining Services by Sodexo, looked on and answered any questions volunteers had while working through the trash. When the volunteers had sorted all the trash into three bags from each building, Mitchell said they would weigh each bag on a shipping scale in Chevron Science Center to determine the waste from each building.
“We find that waste can fluctuate from year to year,” Mitchell said. He also said the information will be used for internal use and published later.
As the volunteers were cleaning, numerous students, including sophomore political science and economics major Amanda Roesch, couldn’t help but stare and wonder if she contributed to the waste in any way.
“I usually make sure I throw things into the recycling if a can is nearby, but seeing them sort through it in person makes me questions if one of those coffee cups was mine,” Roesch said.
According to Cynthia Menard, a junior ecology major and one of the volunteers, coffee cups were the one item that commonly went into the trash instead of recycling. However, Goodfellow said ever since dining services started encouraging students to use reusable mugs on campus last semester, 25,000 fewer cups — a 16 percent decrease — were used in the fall.
“Honestly, I’ve seen recycling cans all over campus in buildings and dorms,” Gallagher said as he watched the volunteers. “If I don’t see one nearby, it’s as easy as holding on to it or throwing it into my backpack until I find one.”
While the recyclable materials were easier to spot, as they were mostly paper and plastic products, sorting the compost from trash was a grueling task because they are usually mixed together in foods.
Emma Washa, a senior communication major, picked up a half-eaten Chipotle bowl and started to separate the remaining food into two separate bags. Anything that came from animals — such as meat and dairy products — went into the trash pile and the rest went into the compost pile.
“I think the most important thing is education on how much waste is unnecessary and how to dispose of it,” Washa said. “If you don’t know [what is recyclable and what’s not], you should find out rather than throwing it in the trash for convenience.”
After close to two hours of sifting through materials, Menard said she was shocked by some of the discoveries she made.
“I think the weirdest thing we found in the trash today was a semi-broken selfie stick,” Menard said. “But, someone threw out one whole Twix bar. I mean, who doesn’t finish their chocolate?”
In addition to Wednesday’s event, there have been other efforts during the last three months to clean up waste on and off campus. According to Goodfellow, after the men’s basketball game against North Carolina in February, 20 student and faculty volunteers from several student ecology groups, including Free the Planet, went around the Petersen Events Center to recycle items left behind in the stands.
“We want to make sure that Pitt is being waste conscious everywhere and not just in the dorms and buildings located on campus,” Goodfellow said.
Last semester a food audit done at Market Central and the Perch revealed students waste 1,145 pounds of food daily. To reduce waste in campus dining halls, Goodfellow said they made a few changes after conducting waste audits last semester in Market and the Perch. After noticing that three times as many carbohydrates — especially burger buns — are thrown away in the evening, versus any other time of the day, Goodfellow and the dining staff started to serve less carbohydrates during dinner.
But whether it’s food waste, or any other material, Goodfellow and the other volunteers agree that long-term change will only happen with cooperation among all members of Pitt’s campus.
“Reduction is the primary goal — including reduce, reuse and recycle,” Goodfellow said. “People just need to be more conscious of what they are wasting, and the change needs to happen on a larger scale.”