Here’s why your compost and recycling is ending up in landfills

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Daniela Cervantes/Staff

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Campus junior Tyler Swartout was walking through Sproul Plaza one evening when he saw a campus custodial worker empty the contents of compost, recycling and landfill bins all into a single landfill-designated dumpster.

What Swartout saw is not an isolated incident. Following protocol, campus custodians and groundskeepers will throw the contents of compost and recycling bins into landfill dumpsters if they feel the bins have been “contaminated,” according to Lin King, manager of Cal Zero Waste, a campus facilities service that manages solid waste.

Contamination occurs when, despite clearly differentiated receptacles, some people still throw waste into the wrong bins, King explained, calling these individuals “bad apples.”

Groundskeepers and custodians, who are responsible for determining whether or not this contamination has occurred, only look at the uppermost contents of bins.

“It’s really subjective for our groundskeepers and custodians,” King said. “Our job is very strictly not to dig through the bins and sort it.”

Custodians and groundskeepers are supposed to notify waste management offices if they are repeatedly throwing out loads of compost and recycling, but King said that facility services does not get many calls of this kind.

While campus facility services conducts waste audits on a building or event basis, there is no current record of how many loads of compost and recycling are thrown out because of contamination.

“(It’s) very hypocritical for the (campus) to not enforce its own policies,” Swartout said.

Take compostable utensils, for example, which are frequently used in campus cafes. Because the compost facilities that the campus contracts are unable to break down these utensils, they are considered contaminants despite their labeling, according to Courtney McGuire, a campus sophomore and vermicomposting associate with the Student Environmental Resource Center, or SERC.

Michelle La, a zero waste specialist with Cal Zero Waste, said she thinks the issue of compost and recycling contamination will have an effect on the campus’s Zero Waste 2020 initiative.

According to an executive report from the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability, the campus adopted this initiative in its 2009 sustainability plan. An element of the campus’s initiative was a goal of a 75 percent reduction in landfill waste by 2012. This first goal was not met.

“We do, as a campus, need a strategic educational campaign around zero waste,” said Sharon Daraphonhdeth, interim director for SERC. “We live in a disposable culture.”

The campus diversion rate, which reflects the amount of solid waste that is diverted from landfills through recycling and composting efforts, is currently 50 percent, according to UC Berkeley’s Office of Sustainability website. This figure, however, does not take into account contamination, according to La.

Contact Shayann Hendricks at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shayannih.