This spring, a team of Richland College anthropology students found more than just banana peels, empty coffee cups and plastic bottles in the trash on campus – they found a treasure trove of data.
Professor Lesley Daspit’s anthropology students uncovered interesting patterns in recycling behaviors on campus that give Richland College leaders valuable insight into how to improve current sustainability practices.
The group of students – known as “garbologists” – also noticed after digging through almost 600 pounds of trash that recycling rates at Richland College would improve if recycling receptacles were placed in the outlying areas of campus, such as the soccer fields and parking lots.
“It was a dirty job,” Dr. Daspit said with a smile. “I am very proud of my students; they have worked hard on this research project.”
Before they riffled through the refuse, Dr. Daspit taught her Introduction to Archeology students the proper anthropological techniques for how to study artifacts and gain insight into the people to whom they belonged.
“Garbology is the study of modern refuse and trash,” Dr. Daspit said. “Archeology used to just deal with people in the past, but garbology has taken us into new venues such as landfills and college campuses.”
One student, Gigi Lofland, said she learned that analyzing a community’s garbage is nothing new to anthropology or archeology.
“Studying trash is legitimate archeology,” she said. “We learned about trash middens, or trash heaps. Archeologists have been learning about societies and understanding cultures through middens for years.”
Dr. Daspit’s class started the garbology research project by surveying fellow students about their recycling habits at home and on campus and their awareness of Richland College’s recycling initiatives.
The garbologists found that of the 88 students surveyed, 47 percent recycle at home, 77 percent recycle on campus, but only 14 percent were aware that Richland College was participating this spring in Recyclemania, a national contest among colleges and universities. Richland College won top state honors in 2010, 2011 and 2012 in Recyclemania and consistently ranks in the top 10 nationally.
Tales from the Trash
Dr. Daspit’s students also got their hands dirty. They collected 599 pounds of garbage from 18 collections sites on Richland College’s 243-acre campus. The team studied trash receptacles from inside and outside campus buildings.
From the rubbish, the garbology team sorted out 1,368 items that could have been recycled. The majority of the recyclables found were plastic bottles (56 percent), followed by plastic bags (27 percent), cans (12 percent) and glass items (5 percent).
Practicing good anthropological technique, the students also included observation as part of their research. They spent a total of eight hours watching what people threw in the waste bins at various locations on campus.
The garbologists discovered that 52 percent of the 79 people they observed threw away items that could have been recycled. The students think placing recycling bins closer to waste receptacles and simply adding more recycling bins on campus would encourage more recycling.
Students said they were amazed by the amount of food and beverage waste they found, which included many half-full drink bottles, an unopened six-pack of Gatorade, a full box of peanut butter crackers, unopened granola bars, whole coconuts and an unopened jar of tomato sauce.
That wasn’t the only surprise the students discovered in the garbage.
“We found a bundle of perfectly good iPod cords,” said student Isaak Lee. “We couldn’t figure that one out.”
Not surprisingly, the class found items from across the globe in the waste bins. Richland College’s student body of some 20,000 college credit students and another 5,000 continuing education students is internationally and ethnically diverse, speaking more than 79 first languages.
“I knew we had a really diverse community at Richland College but it was really neat to see that show up in the trash,” Gigi said.
Among the international refuse were chips from Korea, soymilk from Malaysia, fruit drinks from Mexico and Belgium, dates from China, a natural toothbrush from Pakistan and a calling card to call Ethiopia.
The garbology team recorded more of their observations and adventures on the Richland College Garbology Blog.
Ideas for the Future
At the end of their project, Dr. Daspit and the class presented their findings and recommendations to college leaders, which included:
- installing recycling bins in the campus parking lots and athletic fields
- placing recycling and waste bins in closer proximity
- standardizing the look of recycling bins
- posting signage atop the bins indicating what can go in respective recycling bins
- increasing student and employee awareness and participation in recycling on campus
- expanding the study to include offices and classrooms
- exploring partnerships with food vendors on campus to reduce plastic packaging waste and
- further studying food and beverage waste on campus.
The students hope that garbology won’t be a one-time class project at Richland College.
“We definitely should keep it going. It needs to be studied year round,” Isaak said. “I’ll definitely recycle more after what I’ve seen. There’s still a lot to work on.”
Seeing the change in students’ awareness and attitudes about environmental sustainability is gratifying, Dr. Daspit said.
“That’s what I love about the project – something so simple as a waste audit can have a cascading effect across campus and into our lives,” Dr. Daspit said.
Jerry Owens, Richland College’s assistant director of Facilities Services, who leads the college’s energy conservation and sustainability efforts, said the garbology project provides important information for sustainability initiatives.
“Their project was very helpful to us,” he said. “We already knew that there was an opportunity for more recycling in the parking lots and outer areas, but the project gave us some good data. One of the best things about this is that students are getting more involved and aware.”
Mr. Owens said that Facilities Services has been working not only with Dr. Daspit’s students but also with other Service Learning groups on campus.
“We are happy to partner with students and we hope to work more closely with them in the future,” he said.
The garbology project ties into Richland College’s active commitment to the triple-bottom line of social equity and justice, economic viability and environmental vitality. Richland provides educational programs, services, processes and practices to empower students to achieve their educational goals and become lifelong learners and responsible global citizens, building sustainable local and world community.
Richland College has received awards and recognitions for its commitment to environmental sustainability from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the Dallas Business Journal, the Community College Journal, the Rocky Mountain Institute and the North Texas Corporate Recycling Association. The U.S. Green Building Council awarded LEED Platinum certification for Richland College’s Sabine Hall science building and LEED Gold certification for the Richland College Garland Campus.