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VIDEO | Portland State students caught green-handed

It was a breezy cool day toward the end of winter quarter when volunteers from various Portland State sustainability groups started gathering at the Park Blocks. Their mission was clear: They wanted to see if a passersby would stop to recycle a nondescript, two-liter plastic bottle lying on the ground next to a glaringly obvious recycling container. 

Part hidden-camera social experiment and part flash mob, the stealthy group of 17 individuals from Portland State’s Waste Reduction Task Force, Campus Sustainability Office, Community Environmental Services, and Institute for Sustainable Solutions eagerly awaited—while looking casual and nonchalant— for someone to stop and recycle the plastic bottle. The group of incognito volunteers was posited to erupt in applause and hand out Preserve food containers made of recycled plastic along with PSU Reuses branded durable sporks once someone did the right thing. 

While they waited, the recycling cheerleaders made small talk and tried to blend in with the rest of the tiny clusters of people hanging out in the Park Blocks in order to not look too suspicious.

Peter Daeges, waste reduction specialist in the Campus Sustainability Office, had this to say about the longer-than-anticipated wait: "I was so ready to start applauding people when they picked up the bottle. Then quite a bit of time passed, and this random bottle on the ground didn't seem out of place to anyone.”

At first it seemed as if the overcast skies, winds, and occasional shower bursts would keep would-be recyclers from placing the plastic bottle into the recycling bin. Or was it the fact that finals week was in full swing and everyone’s minds were on finishing strong? It appeared that most people who passed the bottle by didn’t even seem to notice it was there at all. However, after a few literal stumbles onto the bottle, members of the PSU community began to step up and within the hour nearly a dozen of the 100 or so who walked by the bottle had stopped to pick it up and recycle it. Some of the highlights of this “Trash Mob” scene were recorded and compiled in this YouTube video:

"I'm sure a few people caught on and did it for the prize, but the majority of recyclers didn't hesitate—they just picked the bottle up mid-text and threw it in the bin without another thought. This is the kind of automatic reaction we need to foster with recycling on campus,” said Thea Kindschuh, a member of the Waste Reduction Task Force.

The inspiration for the experiment came from a similar flash mob style recycling video (It's worth checking out, you'ld find it here) from Quebec.

It was also rooted in the statistic from a campus-wide waste audit performed by Community Environmental Services for PSU in 2013 that 13 percent of the university’s landfill-bound waste could be easily recycled. Given that PSU sent 1,787 tons of solid waste to the landfill in 2013, this would mean that 13 percent of that total or approximately 232 tons of material could have been recycled instead of buried in the landfill. It is these kinds of numbers that motivate our recycling cheerleaders to keep an eye out for recyclers doing the right thing. With lots of food storage containers and sporks left to give away, you should keep an eye out for them as well, because you might just be the next person caught green-handed.

Tony Hair is the waste management coordinator in the Campus Sustainability Office. 

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