Students sort through PSU’s garbage, collect priceless data
Author: Campus Sustainability Office
Posted: April 28, 2015

On any given day at PSU, you may be lucky enough to encounter a group of students on campus wearing white, full-body Tyvek suits sorting through garbage. They are likely students from a sustainability themed Freshman Inquiry (FRINQ) class who have teamed up with sustainability staff as part of the Waste Audit Living Lab Experience, or WALL-E program. Spearheaded by Tony Hair, PSU’s waste management coordinator, and sponsored by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions as a Living Lab project, WALL-E gives students a hands-on look at what is thrown away on campus, while also providing valuable data to the Campus Sustainability Office. 

A waste audit is a process of sorting garbage into categories to see what could have been recycled, composted, or reused, and—ultimately—see where there may be opportunities for waste prevention in the future. Since the program’s inception last spring, WALL-E has conducted 10 waste audits on campus with PSU students, sorting a combined 3,642.5 pounds—just under two tons—of landfill-bound waste.

The WALL-E team has found that 33 percent of what is thrown away at PSU is actually compostable; 11 percent is easily recyclable as part of the school’s regular recycling program; 26 percent could have been recycled with a little more effort, donated, or reused; and only 30 percent should have been sent to the landfill as true waste.

The data generated by WALL-E helps the Campus Sustainability Office plan strategies for helping Portland State divert more waste from the landfill by increasing rates of reuse, recycling, and composting.

As a part of PSU’s Living Lab program, WALL-E bridges the academic student experience and the operations of the University, two areas that don’t often overlap. Living Lab projects are designed to involve a combination of PSU staff, students, and faculty—ideally all three—coming together to solve a problem, answer a question, or ignite an initiative that assists the University in achieving one or more of its sustainability goals. 

“WALL-E has been the most personally and professionally rewarding experience I have had to date at PSU,” Hair said. “I see students bond with their classmates while they sort the waste and realize that so much of what we dispose of still has value. And to watch professors that I greatly admire recognize that waste can indeed be a scholarly pursuit is validating to my own research and career path.”

So, next time you encounter a group of students in white suits sorting through garbage, you’ll know what’s going on. And if you stop and chat, you might just learn something interesting about waste generation and prevention at PSU.

Check out more photos of student waste audits on the WALL-E Flickr page.