Princeton University Conducts Public Waste Audit

waste audit
Posted on December 4, 2017

By Ezra Austin ‘19

On a cold, windy fall afternoon, several Princeton students gathered to participate in the University’s public waste audit. Over the course of three hours, volunteers sorted through over 60 bags of landfill waste and recycling from various parts of campus, assessing and logging how much recyclable material had been improperly thrown out.

The goal of the audit was to collect data, but also to bring attention to a problem that many Princeton students may not be aware of.

students weighing trash bags Students weighed the contents of each bag

“Trash contamination is a huge issue,” said Erin Mooz ‘19, as she recorded the materials found in the recycling bags. Mooz is an EcoRep, one of several students dedicated to raising campus awareness of sustainability issues.

student at waste audit Erin Mooz '19 finds a t-shirt in a trash bag

While many of the volunteers participating in the public audit were student EcoReps like Mooz, for others, it was their first time partaking in such an activity on campus. One such volunteer was Natalie Grayson ‘20 who heard about the public audit through email list-serves and wanted to get involved.

“I like how [the audit] is in a really public place—everyone walks past here,” said Grayson. “I know we have a huge contamination issue, and I think it’s really cool to have a visual aspect so students walking past can see it and want to help.”

trash bags Audited Landfill and recycling bags

Indeed, the mounds of trash bags piled high in front of Frist Campus Center were a striking image to students walking by. After 3 hours of trash sorting, several members of the community began to take notice. Part of the volunteers’ job also included talking to curious onlookers about the audit and educating generally about recycling and contamination.

Once the data has been fully collected and analyzed, the goal is to use the data to improve student education surrounding recycling.

“This is the first time that students have been involved in such a large scale,” said Mooz. She hopes that the audit will start a larger conversation about sustainability and waste on campus.

“I think overall the data will really help us make better decisions about waste management,” said Mooz.

From the data analyzed after the audit, the diversion rate (representing how much waste is diverted from the landfill) was 39.69%.

Of all the recycling bags that were sorted, 77% contained more than 20% contamination, meaning they contained items that were either not recyclable or were too contaminated with food or liquids to be recycled. This percentage exceeds the acceptance rate of the recycling center in Trenton where Princeton University’s waste is sent, and therefore would be rejected and sent to the landfill.

The most common contaminants were small bags of trash placed in recycling bags, with plastic wrappers, solo cups and napkins being the next most frequent. Printer paper and plastic bottles were the most common recyclables that were found in the landfill bags.

The data shows that there is still more work to be done to educate the campus community on proper recycling habits, as there was much contamination in the recycling bags audited. The organizers are planning the next public waste audit for the annual campus Earth Day Celebration in April.