Students get dirty for a good cause with Garbage on the Green

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Around the same time every year, the University of North Florida gets a little bit dirty.

Hundreds of pounds of garbage are liberated from the campus waste system and rifled through by dozens of students.

The trashy work is for a good cause. The annual Garbage on the Green trash and recycling audit sheds some light on the garbage the University community throws away.

This year’s event took place in October and included 108 UNF student volunteers who sorted, weighed and even waded into campus refuse to determine how the University can better handle its trash. In addition, about 15 students from Atlantic Coast High School took time out from their school days to volunteer.

James Taylor, a coordinator from the University’s Environmental Center, said the event is an eye-opening exercise for students, faculty and staff alike because it educates the campus about ways to improve recycling habits and reduce trash and litter.

And the preservation of the natural habitat surrounding the campus is a major priority for an institution that has become nationally recognized for its abundance of trails, wetlands and beautiful natural vistas. This strong commitment to the environment has been awarded and acknowledged by multiple national college ranking agencies, such as the Princeton Review, which featured UNF in its 2012 Guide to 322 Green Colleges. Additionally, UNF was ranked in the top 100 “Coolest Schools” by the Sierra magazine, the award-winning magazine of the Sierra Club, America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, for its “green” endeavors on campus.

Taylor said the Garbage on the Green event serves as a wake-up call for University community members who might have grown complacent about their disposal habits. From 2007 to 2011, almost 3,500 pounds of waste from campus trash and recycling containers has been sorted, measured and catalogued by volunteers. Of that total, about 820 pounds came from recycling containers, which indicates a 24 percent diversion rate for the campus. The diversion rate is the amount of waste diverted from landfills and other traditional disposal methods by recycling, reuse or composting. The State of Florida currently has a goal to reach a 75 percent diversion rate by 2020, and UNF is striving to reach that total as well.

This year’s event kicked off with an early morning cleanup of litter on campus followed by the waste audit, a systematic study of the trash that is tossed. This analysis will be used to help determine best practices to improve waste reduction programs and recover resources that would normally go to the landfill. Volunteers also handed out about 450 t-shirts made from recycled plastic bottles.

Despite the alliterative name, the sixth annual Garbage on the Green actually took place just off the Student Union Osprey Plaza. The location was moved a few years back from the Green to siphon off some of the strong student foot traffic near the Student Union.

Abdub Jirmo, a senior political science major and student assistant for the Environmental Center, said the event puts things in perspective for people who are somewhat disconnected from the trash disposal process.

“A lot of us just toss things out and don’t think about the consequences, “ he said. “After this, I don’t think people would throw away some of these easily recyclable items.”

Taylor said the event is coordinated by the Environmental Center with support from Physical Facilities and Southland Waste, which is the event’s contracted waste hauler. The company also provides additional funding for the event.

Dr. Radha Pyati, director of the Environmental Center, said there are still many widespread misconceptions about recycling, and Garbage on the Green is positioned to spark informed dialogue on campus. For UNF, recycling means less money spent on transporting items to the landfill, which is far more expensive than reusing or recycling. Also, the trash audit is a dynamic way of combining a few of UNF’s key missions — supporting green initiatives and providing hands-on learning experiences to the community.

“The University has a moral commitment to protecting the environment,” she said. “This is outlined as one of the University's core values, and Garbage on the Green reflects that.”