Dumpster dive

Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

Last spring, four mem­bers of the Husky Envi­ron­mental Action Team, or HEAT, got down and dirty with campus trash. For the last 20 years, building ser­vices director Mark Boulter has orga­nized the annual “dump­ster dive” to get a sense of what the North­eastern com­mu­nity is throwing away. This was the first time stu­dents got to take part in the fun.

They wanted to see what is in the gen­eral waste stream of the uni­ver­sity and find out what are we doing well, what are we not doing so well,” said Boulter. Based on the results of a campus-​​wide audit, the com­mu­nity is gen­er­ally pretty good: the waste stream con­tains less than 5 per­cent con­t­a­m­i­nants, or recy­clable prod­ucts that get thrown in the trash. This is great com­pared to the national norm of about 15 to 20 per­cent, Boulter said.

A lot of times you throw some­thing out and you don’t think about where it has to go,” said HEAT co-​​president Sarah Sanchez, who par­tic­i­pated in the dive. “Someone else picks it up and it goes some­where else, and that’s sort of not your problem. But part of sus­tain­ability and helping edu­cate stu­dents and our­selves is remem­bering that is has to go some­where, that it builds up.”

For the 2012 dive, Boulter chose the Ell Stu­dent Center com­pactor, which pro­vides a good cross sec­tion of campus waste. All of the trash from the tunnel system below sev­eral North­eastern build­ings gets fun­neled to this loca­tion. While it doesn’t include res­i­den­tial waste, it paints a good pic­ture of waste dis­posal from the aca­d­emic build­ings, including both the sci­ences (where you might find a lot of plastic pipette tips) and the human­i­ties (where you might find more paper).

Northeastern students Alyssa Pandolfi, Sarah Sanchez, Jessica Feldish, and Chris Lau waded through campus trash to get a better sense of the community's waste stream. Photo courtesy of Mark Boulter.

North­eastern stu­dents Alyssa Pan­dolfi, Sarah Sanchez, Jes­sica Feldish, and Chris Lau waded through campus trash to get a better sense of the community’s waste stream. Photo cour­tesy of Mark Boulter.

The com­pactor was taken to a transfer sta­tion with the HEAT stu­dents, Boulter, and other mem­bers of the facil­i­ties team hot on its trail, ready to dive in. The con­tents of the com­pactor were dumped onto the floor of the transfer sta­tion and, don­ning safety gog­gles, hard hats, and rubber gloves, the group took the plunge. They ripped open plastic garbage bags (which Boulter said are made from 100 per­cent post-​​consumer mate­rials) and sifted through the debris. They didn’t find any­thing too exciting, but that’s a good thing.

In the 20 years Boulter has been orga­nizing the exer­cise, he said he’s seen many changes. There used to be a lot of card­board and paper, and now those mate­rials have all but dis­ap­peared. “It’s nice to see that the pro­grams we’re run­ning are actu­ally working,” he said.

Boulter is him­self a grad­uate of North­eastern, where he studied busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion. But before he even made it to col­lege, he was already being groomed for a life of sus­tain­ability. “My grand­fa­ther was into recy­cling. He was a little Italian gen­tleman. I’d call him Pop, and he’d call me Marco. He’d say, Marco, let’s go shop­ping. And shop­ping meant we’re going to the dump.”

Boulter and his Pop would col­lect old bicy­cles, lawn­mowers, you name it. “We’d take them back and we’d work on them and fix them up, make them use­able and new again.”

Boulter grad­u­ated in 1983 and has been working at the uni­ver­sity ever since, spear­heading the campus recy­cling pro­gram as well as other sus­tain­ability initiatives.

But none of it would be pos­sible without the help of stu­dents like Sanchez, he said. “Every­body has to buy in. The uni­ver­sity can man­date cer­tain things, but if the whole uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity doesn’t buy in on it, it’ll never succeed.” Many of the pro­grams have the sup­port of stu­dent groups like HEAT to thank for their success.

Every choice that you make every day, what you buy, how you use it, how you get rid of it, it all adds up,” said Sanchez.

Cover photo via Thinkstock.