Fri. Jul 12th, 2024

By Connor Barritt (‘23)

December 1, 2021

On October 31st, between 1:00 and 3:30 PM, members of the Sustainability Committee convened behind Kenan Auditorium… to go dumpster diving. 

Wading Through Trash With The Sustainability Committee

Those who are crazy enough to wade through dumpsters are usually looking for items with some monetary value. We weren’t dumpster diving to find trinkets or valuables, however. No, instead, we were dumpster diving at DA’s dumpsters for sustainability. While we certainly wanted to take recyclables and compostables out from the trash and put them to better use, the primary purpose of this outing was to catalogue the types and quantities of trash to know how much waste DA generates could be recycled or composted to inform future sustainability efforts. Mrs. Bessias and eight students, including myself, showed up on a brisk Sunday afternoon to wade through wet garbage bags, old discarded food, soaked cardboard, old pizza boxes, nitrile gloves stained green with acid from the chemistry lab, and a broad assortment of trash generated by the DA community, all in the name of sustainability.

Total amount of recyclable materials found in the trash


As mentioned above, the goal was to take inventory of the types of trash that DA produces, as well as how much recyclable or compostable material ends up in the dumpster. The sustainability committee can better address the needs of the school if it understands the school’s trash. If necessary, the sustainability committee can help roll out more compost bins, recycling bins, and Terracycle bins (more on that below) to give the community an alternative to throwing everything in the nearest trash bin. Secondly, it helps the sustainability committee learn about the gaps in the community’s knowledge; if most people don’t know that, say, pizza boxes are compostable, then that’s something the sustainability committee can address.

The combined compacted compost yield of the trash sorted

The Dirt, Grime, and Filth

The trash in the dumpsters that Sunday were generated on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of that week. We managed to sort our way through approximately two-thirds of the trash in that dumpster—or two days worth of DA’s trash. The biggest offenders, by far, were old pizza boxes and paper towels. You should compost your pizza boxes! While normal cardboard is recyclable, pizza boxes stained by the cheese, sauce, and oil from pizza are not. As for the paper towels, assuming they weren’t used to clean chemicals, they are also compostable. However, unlike pizza boxes, composting paper towels isn’t always an option. Beyond the pizza boxes and paper towels, the sheer quantity of compost in just two days worth of trash was disappointing. So much waste that could be put to better use was being, well, wasted. Three whole bins of compost were just barely able to contain the sheer quantity of compostable waste we found in those dumpsters, and they were only able to contain it because of considerable efforts to compress the compost and break down pizza boxes to be more space-efficient. While there was thankfully less recycled material gone to waste—a good sign for the DA community—we were still able to fill up two large recycling bins to the brim with material. Naturally, there were still large amounts of trash that could neither be recycled nor composted, such as the chemical-stained gloves from the chemistry lab, so we still had trash to put back in the dumpster. However, the number of trash bags that we put back in the dumpster was much lower than the number we took out. Separately from recycled materials, we also had two small cardboard boxes of recycling to send to Terracycle. 

What is Terracycle?

Terracycle is a waste-management company that specializes in recycling materials that are normally hard to recycle, such as plastic chip bags. The sustainability committee has rolled out three Terracycle bins on the Upper School campus: one near Kirby Gym, one near Assembly Hall, and one near the Learning Commons. So, if you have any chip bags, consider putting them in a Terracycle bin instead of in the trash.

Hard-to-recycle materials sent to Terracycle

What to Takeaway

Durham Academy generates a lot of trash, like any other large community. However, a lot of that trash is compostable and recyclable ends up in the dumpsters. The sustainability committee still has a lot to do to educate and facilitate sustainable practices at DA, but ultimately, we depend on the student body to be cognizant of the waste we generate. Even if putting your chip bag in a Terracycle bin or composting your pizza box won’t make a huge difference by itself, if everyone in the community can make that small difference, then we can take big steps towards sustainability. Large numbers of small differences make a big difference, so remember that next time you’re throwing away lunch waste. As for what the sustainability committee learned, we now know one major source of waste to target: paper towels. If we can compost more paper towels, we will be getting a ton of waste out of the dumpsters and landfills. The sustainability committee learned a lot from going dumpster diving, so we can now be better informed with what forms of waste to target to make our community a little more green. Hopefully now that you know what we took away from this, you can make an effort to be a little more green too.  


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