"The Circle of Trash @ Swarthmore" Prompts Community to Consider Cycles of Waste

On 4:30pm this past Wednesday, an extensive display in McCabe outlining Swarthmore’s waste systems drew a small crowd of students, faculty and staff. The exhibit was organized by Pamela Harris and Andrea Baruzzi, members of the library staff and current Sustainability Advocates of the department, in partnership  with the Green Advisors (GA) program.

“The waste exhibit was helpful simply because it was so visible in a unique way. It was the perfect middle ground between a one time interactive event and a permanent yet easily ignorable poster,” reflected Ahmet Kayagil '18.

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The exhibit, consisting of four cases each focusing on a different aspect of waste, was constructed in an effort to expose the contours of Swarthmore’s waste systems. Most all waste at Swarthmore is disposed of in one of three ways, it is composted, recycled or burnt in an incinerator. The consequences of these methods of disposal, whether negative or positive, are complex and far reaching.

“As individuals, our everyday action of throwing things away literally creates the waste streams that our waste industry is built around. Collectively, our actions have immense impact on how the industry functions,” says Terrence Xiao '20, the member of Swarthmore’s President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship working to improve Swarthmore’s waste systems.

“To be able to realize and exercise our agency, we need to first at least have a basic consciousness and understanding of our waste system,” Xiau continues.

The exhibit in McCabe is one of many projects designed to do just that.

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Some people at Swarthmore spend most of their day sorting through, dumping and dealing with our campus’ waste. Other people at Swarthmore spend most of their day working to improve our campus’ waste system. Some dream of making our stanks of trash into art just to discover the sheer amount of it. Whether this is you or not, waste is a big part of our lives. And where it goes when it leaves our hands has precise implications for the people plants and animals who live in our very own neighborhood.

Xiau describes waste as “A universal, intrinsic, but simultaneously ignored aspect of our lives… an often invisible part of our lives.”

This is one reason it is hard to conceptualize that the waste we produce has an impact on the rest of the world and that this impact is not only large, but local.

“I just think of all the waste we produce every day. Reading that waste report and seeing how much trash could've been diverted to recycling or compost was maddening,” reflected Gina Goosby '20. “Even if it's just one coffee cup that gets composted instead of trashed, I'm glad to do my part for the environment.”

Each plate, cup or bottle we use, though it serves us well, does not dissolve when it exits the vicinity of our lives. Its lifetime, so to speak, is not over.

In the words of Alliyah Lusuegro '20, current Coordinator of the GA program, “I think there is this notion of feeling like it's "disappearing" because it's off your hands, but it doesn't, and it has to go somewhere after. And for us, our trash goes to the Covanta Incinerator, which goes into our atmosphere, which directly impacts Chester's community, and causes global climate change. There's a chain there. Waste doesn't disappear or stop.

The Covanta incinerator, calling itself a “Waste to Energy Facility” is the largest incinerator in the country, burning 3,510 tons of waste per day. It’s located in Chester, a low income neighborhood primarily populated by people of color who suffer from inordinately high rates of cancer and of child mortality due to poor air quality. The incinerator itself reeks; the fact that it actively profits from environmental racism, systemic inequality, and the degradation of nature wreaks even more.

“Whether landfill or incinerator, waste disposal facilities continue to perpetuate harm to both the environment and the communities they are situated in,” offered Xiau. He notes that they are commonly located in “low-income communities of color, most vulnerable to the harmful effects but simultaneously lacking the political and socioeconomic agency to resist.”

When we begin to uncover the stories of our waste and it seems impossible to feel empowered, to feel hopeful. There are no harmless or clean ways to dispose of trash. But knowing what’s up allows us to, if not change the system, change how we interact with it.

About 85% of the materials we use on campus can be composted and/or recycled. The other 15%, and all other items we stick in the trash bins unknowingly, end up in the air and lungs of the communities in Chester, PA. But how much of it gets to Chester is our choice.

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“That's why waste is so important for everyone to think about: because it is an aspect of all of our lives where we can tangibly engage and influence the larger system through our everyday actions - once this awareness is achieved, we can collectively transition towards a more sustainable and equitable waste industry,” says Xiau.

Compost is agreed on as the best way to do this, as it is the cleanest way to dispose of waste and allows the waste itself to be decomposed into invaluable, fertile soil. Last year Swarthmore composted 10.9% of our total waste but could have composted 48.2%. This past fall the amount we composted doubled the percentage of composted waste to 22.6%, yet the amount of potentially compostable items we use on campus has increased as well. We have the potential to compost 53% of our total waste.

As an institution, Swarthmore has committed itself to becoming a Zero Waste Campus by the year 2022. Zero waste means that 80% of all waste at Swarthmore will be diverted to compost or recycling.

“Remember that as a community, only about 15% of our waste stream (by weight) is trash! That means that the majority of items you throw away everyday should be going into recycling and composting instead of to the incinerator. If you notice a lack of blue and green in your life, start to pay attention to how and what you throw away,” Xiau suggests.

“Some of my daily practices include bringing reusable bags to Target, taking my water bottle wherever I go, and making sure I sort my room's trash bin after it is full into the appropriate bins in my dorm's hallway,” offers Lusuegro. “If I think about the "after," and how my actions affect the livelihoods of people, I think that motivates me to become more conscious about my waste habits.”

“[Waste] is an opportunity that we have as an institution and as individuals to understand and engage with an often invisible part of our lives, and to reshape our systems of waste management around a framework of environmental and social responsibility.”