This student run blog reflects writing by students from their own perspectives on topics related to sustainability. It does not reflect the position of the University.

Loreanna San Pedro is a recent graduate who studied Environmental Science and minored in Public Health. She was the Little Ants Nature School Coordinator at the Sustainability Resource Center, where she dedicated herself to helping young students receive environmental education.

Know Before You Throw!

By: Loreanna San Pedro

Published: September 10, 2020

When you throw your trash away, how often do you think about what the inside of that trash can looks like? If your answer is, “not very often,” then you’re not alone.

The interns at UCI’s Sustainability Resource Center (SRC) got elbow deep (literally!) in trash to show everyone what the collective amounts of trash we produce every day looks like.

As an intern with Verde Sustainability Consultancy, I have the task of conducting a “waste audit,” or an analysis of how much trash a company produces, at a public nature center in Newport Beach. Leading these waste audits allows me to help the center get green building certified as an eco-friendly establishment. This gorgeous nature learning center is home to a butterfly habitat, a walking trail, a huge array of different plant species, and of course, a ton of photo opportunities. While the center works extremely hard to educate people on a zero-waste lifestyle, not everyone who visits is an expert. The bright side is, we can help!

The SRC team and I conducted a waste audit in this center in February. I’d be lying if I said it was glamorus work, but it’s all too necessary to know how much trash you produce to make changes for the better. Here’s how it went down:

I recruited student interns from the SRC to help me conduct the audit.

We took out every bag of trash from their bins in their pre-existing categories: landfill, compost, recyclable plastic, glass, metal cans, cardboard, and mixed paper. It’s beneficial to know the different categories of trash to ensure you’re throwing things into the right bin. Then, we weighed it all, and found there was 132 pounds of trash alone in the landfill!

Here’s a photo of us standing by two weeks worth of trash! Obviously, everything can go in the landfill. However, not everything needs to go there. If you can’t reduce the amount of waste you’re producing, then try to reuse some things more than once, and as a last resort you can recycle. While we look happy in the photo, we were greeted with tiny critters (like spiders and mice) that we were not anticipating!

Within the recyclable categories (recyclable plastics, metal cans, and glass), we looked at contamination rates. Contamination is when either 1) the wrong item gets put in the recycling bin or 2) the right item gets put in, but in the wrong condition.

When recycling, everything must be clean and dry. That means:

YES to: emptied plastic bottles, metal cans, glass, clean/non-stained paper and cardboard.

NO to: food or drink stained containers/wrappers, plastic utensils, plastic bags, pizza stained cardboard boxes, or extremely thin plastics such as lids or packaging.

When putting something in the recycling bin, remember to dump and rinse out the liquid. Wash off the food, and if you can’t, it probably doesn’t belong in there. Can you spot a few things in the recycling bin photo (below) that shouldn’t be in there?

Safe to say, the workers at recycling centers have it tough. When we emptied out the recycling bags onto the blue tarps to look at contamination rates, we didn’t expect to see so much liquid, food waste, and straight-up trash in there. By making sure you know the categories of trash and how to properly dispose of items in there, you can reduce contamination rates and reduce the amount of work that has to be put into sorting through recycling. Diverting waste from landfills also helps reduce emissions created from methane production, which occurs during the process of solid waste decomposing in the landfill.

Despite all of this, the nature center had an amazing diversion from landfill rate of 78%, while the average of the entire city of Newport Beach was 71%. Take a look at the sophisticated 3-step composting system they had in place. The first step consists of the huge chunks of yard trimmings, the second step is when the items have decomposed, and the third step is when the items are small enough to use in the soil! Composting consists of taking produce and meat scraps, food stained napkins, and yard trimmings, and putting it into a container to decompose into smaller chunks to be used as soil.

We learned some great lessons here about how important it is to properly dispose of trash and much cooperation it takes to be zero-waste! Not everyone knows how to properly recycle, and there’s a great need to continue to inform the public on best practices. While we have good intentions, it is too common for the recycling bins to end up contaminated with food and liquids. Thus, it’s extremely important to know before you throw!

Thanks to the SRC volunteers for all your help in this project!

Pictured above: Victoria Nguyen, Elise Jones, Qiyu Liu, Loreanna San Pedro (left to right), and Emily Andreas (not pictured).