Pomona College conducted its annual waste audit Feb. 6. The annual audit, initially organized by Professor of Environmental Analysis Char Miller along with several of his students in 2010, and now delegated to the Sustainability Integration Office, has grown to become one of its key environmental assessment efforts.
Assistant Director of Sustainability in Facilities and Campus Services Ginny Routhe described the goals of the audit as “one, to see what we’re throwing away as a campus that we have the capacity to actually divert from the landfill, [and two, to try] to expand our waste program.”
According to Pomona’s website, a group of students and volunteers sift through 300 to 400 lbs. of trash from six areas of the campus―the Smith Campus Center, residential area, a dining hall, administration, non-science academic building and a science building―to evaluate what percentage goes to landfill.
“Surprise audits of the College’s waste help us measure our progress on waste reduction and help create awareness about how we can do a better job recycling, composting and sorting trash,” President David Oxtoby wrote in an email to TSL. “Knowing these facts can motivate us to strive for greater improvements each year.”
According to the 2013-2014 waste audit report, Pomona deposited 42 percent of its waste in landfills last year. 58 percent of that landfill waste from last year could have been composted or recycled. Routhe said that this year’s results showed the percentage of actual trash to be similar to last year’s.
“About 31 percent of the total weight was trash,” she said. “Which means that the remainder of the weight in those trash bags should not have been in there. So, we’re throwing away a lot more than what we should be throwing away into the trash.”
Natalie Casey PO ‘17 was one of the student volunteers who worked with SIO to complete the audit. In an email to TSL, Casey wrote that the results of the audit revealed some needed improvements.
“Residence halls ended up throwing away some hazardous waste which is a little scary – old batteries and medicine can’t be thrown in the normal garbage,” Casey wrote. “The administration used so many Keurig plastic [cups]. The SCC was especially disappointing in the amount of plastic that was thrown away. There [was] a bunch of plastic cups and to-go containers [that] were thrown in the trash instead of recycled.”
Routhe also said that there were some positive results from this year’s audit.
“One piece of encouraging news that came out of it compared to last year is that the amount of paper we found in the trash is significantly down this year,” Routhe said. “Last year a whopping 17 percent of what was in the trash was paper. And this year it was 8 percent. That was the most drastic change in any one category from last year.”
Miller said that despite this positive result, there is still much work to be done, especially if the college is to reach net climate neutrality goal by 2030, a goal announced by President David Oxtoby last year. According to a letter to the college community, the college aims to “balance the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases [released] with an equal amount sequestered or offset.”
According to Miller, the results of the waste audit are directly related to carbon neutrality.
“Anything we do to reduce waste on campus will have a direct impact on the ability of the college to meet its carbon neutrality goal by 2030,” Miller said.
He then gave two examples of how the two are related. First, the more the college consumes goods and services, the more trucks there will be to deliver those goods. All of the truck’s activities uses energy, “which is built into our carbon footprint.”
The second example concerns methane emissions from trash sent to landfills.
“Methane is one of the central off-gasses that comes off of the landfill,” he said. “If we reduce the amount that we send to landfills, like food, for example, we will have a significant impact on the amount of carbon that’s released from CH4, or methane.”
Miller said that there must be greater community involvement in the waste program if the college is to reach that goal.
“Now that we have a 2030 goal, and we’ve committed to that with signatures, we’ve got 14 years, roughly. What are we going to do to make that happen?” Miller said. “I’m not sure we’ve done a great job. It’s still not clear to people what’s compostable, what is recyclable, and what is trash.”
Oxtoby wrote that even though he had not seen the waste audit results, he doesn’t think a single year’s results is enough to question whether the college could meet a goal of carbon neutrality 15 years from now.
“We saw a six-percent reduction in waste last year and I believe we can continue that trend,” Oxtoby wrote. “I know we can find even bigger opportunities to change our waste equation. It will take the awareness of each person on campus to consciously think about how they handle waste in their office, classroom, residence hall and … the dining areas.”
Miller said that the issue of individual responsibility could be addressed by figuring out the mentality behind individual decisions.
“What is it that gets someone to toss something into a blue trashcan, as opposed to a beige one? What’s the process? Studies all over the country have demonstrated that if you make it easy and the signs are clear, that you will get more response,” Miller said. “You won’t get everybody, but you will get more response.”
Oxtoby wrote that sustainability and the goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2030 are important commitments for the college.
“This is a giant stake in the ground for us,” Oxtoby wrote. “Reaching this goal will take the work of faculty, students and staff across campus as we retool buildings and update energy-use practices. We know what we should do—our job now is to help our community see the need to do it and make a commitment to be conscientious all year long.”