It was almost a daily routine. After lunch, we’d walk across the street and down the stairs into the post office — to check our mail, yes, but also to see what treasures we could find in those big green and brown recycling bins. We’d spend too much time sifting through them, stacked high with discarded bank statements, People magazines, newspapers, insurance offers, credit card bills and ads for Yalie’s Pizza. People would look at us like we were crazy — and maybe we were. But just a couple days later, we’d be celebrating the fact that we had taken on a student job with the highest starting pay. We were now getting paid to do what had once been just a good time in the post office.
You’ve probably seen us around campus, dressed in bright yellow jumpsuits, green gloves and plastic face guards, looking like a hazmat team dealing with nuclear waste. And you’ve probably wondered what was going on, who these people are and why they would ever want to dig through trash. Technically, we’re “waste-stream analysts,” but that term can easily be translated to “dumpster divers.” In essence, we’re going through your stuff to find out what you’re doing wrong.
Conducting a waste-stream analysis is pretty simple. Once you’re suited up and ready to get dirty, you pick out your favorite bags of trash from a certain location (like CLS, a dining hall or a residential college dumpster), open them up and dig in. Trash is divided up into two general categories: recyclables and non-recyclables, each of which contains several sub-categories. Under recyclables, there are the classics — cans, bottles, mixed paper and corrugated cardboard. In the non-recyclables, we have your typical trash — those classic red plastic party cups, half-eaten sandwiches and, yes, the occasional used condom (note the word “occasional” — you might wanna pick up your game, hot stuff).
All of the trash is sorted into these different groups and then weighed. Our goal is to determine how much waste being discarded as regular trash could potentially be recycled. Since this January, we have sorted through over 1,100 pounds of Yale trash. In that trash, we found that 442 pounds of it could have been recycled. Thus, roughly 35 percent of waste classified as “trash” has the potential to be recycled. Of the 442 pounds, there were 154 pounds of cans and bottles, 250 pounds of mixed paper and 38 pounds of corrugated cardboard.
While the large proportion of recyclable material in the trash has been alarming, for us the most interesting part of the job has been seeing what students at Yale throw away. The grossest garbage to go through, by far, has been the dining hall remains. We have gone through over 270 pounds of dining hall waste and found hunks of uncooked meat, bags of mussel shells, moldy bread and 40 pounds of corn husks. Gross, right? It’s bad, but what is almost worse is the stuff students throw away in their dorm rooms. Students seem to have a problem washing dishes and food containers — we’ve found complete sets of dishes from the dining hall in addition to moldy Tupperware containers filled with lunch remains. There have been some interesting finds, as well. We’ve found sets of makeup and jewelry, letters from boyfriends back home and embarrassingly soiled clothing.
The job is interesting, to say the least, and we have certainly enjoyed ourselves. We’ve taken great pleasure sifting through your waste. Just remember, the next time you go to throw away those recyclables, take an extra step and toss it in the right bin. And be careful what you throw away, because you never know who might be looking through it next. Oh, and one last thing — make sure to throw this in the mixed paper bin when you are done with it. For us. Please?
Allen Sanchez, Rachel Taylor and Dominique Fenton are freshmen in Berkeley College and work as waste-stream analysts.