Dumpster dive

Photo via Thinkstock.
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.