Garbage in, garbage out?

Not really, when it's a campus zero-waste event

by Sarah Stall

In this trash bag, weighing all of 6 pounds 3 ounces, Manager of Custodial Services, Setups, and Grounds James Vance holds the complete accumulation of garbage that went to the landfill after Log Jam, an on-campus event that fed 2,100 people. A big party like Log Jam can be messy, and it took an impressive bit of recycling to pull off a feat like this. So how in the great, green world did the university do it?

The answer is planning, followed by a lot of careful work.

Vance began by obtaining permission from the City of Tacoma to compost the food waste. He submitted a list of the menu items and the brand names of the napkins, paper plates, and beverage containers to be used. The city made sure the items could be composted, then sent the list to the health department for a final yea or nay.

During the event itself, compost and recycle stations were staffed by student sustainability assistants, who made sure guests sorted their trash. Eating utensils, provided by Dining Services, were returned in tubs to be washed and reused. Aluminum cans and clean paper went into recycling containers, while food, and plates and napkins contaminated with food went into compost containers.

Throughout the night students moved the food waste to Facilities Services’ garbage truck—cleaned and sanitized for the occasion—where it was stored till the next day. To ensure that no waste was, er, wasted, sustainability staff members sorted through trash bins, checking for any misplaced items that could be recycled or composted. What little was left went into the bag Vance is holding. In the morning the compost was delivered to the Tacoma transfer station, examined, and certified OK to compost.

So what’s in the trash bag, you wonder? “It’s ketchup, mustard, and relish packets, some plastic film from the BBQ dishes, and miscellaneous odds and ends we were not able to identify as recyclable,” says Vance. “The waste works out to about one-twentieth of an ounce per person for the meal.”