This past July, for several hours each day, Bemidji State students donned rubber gloves and dug through the garbage at the Beltrami County Community Service Center.
The students, who were taking People in the Environment courses on campus during summer sessions, were part of a group coordinated by BSU’s Sustainability Office the county improve and expand recycling programs on its downtown Bemidji campus.
The Community Service Center, home to nine county, state and school district programs including early childhood education, public health, veteran’s services and the offices of the 9th Judicial District, was chosen for the project as it is one of the largest buildings on the county campus.
“Partnering with BSU was a comfortable decision for us,” said Steve Shadrick, Green Team leader with Beltrami County, said. “We knew they had the experiences and the resources available to complete the audit.”
The county approached BSU in the fall of 2012 to begin discussions on recycling programs. Caitlyn Schuchhardt, a Minnesota GreenCorps representative who spent the last year working at BSU, coordinated a pair of waste audits to provide a baseline measure for how the Sustainability Office would advise the county to proceed with its recycling efforts.
“We wanted to see what their waste stream looked like, how much recycling they already had and how much trash they were going through each day,” Schuchhardt said. “We wanted to get an idea of what we would be dealing with.”
The first audit took place in January, with around 20 BSU students participating. At the end of each day for an entire week, maintenance staff delivered the building’s garbage to a store room instead of throwing it in dumpsters. There, the BSU students opened each bag and sorted the contents by hand to determine what sort of things were being thrown away in the building. Recyclable material was sorted out into two different categories — containers and fiber products — and weighted, and the total amount of garbage collected was weighted as well.
The audit was repeated in July to provide a comparison to the results of the first audit. While summer traffic in the building was much different than during the January audit, the group still saw measurable reductions in the amount of recyclable material that was making its way into the garbage.
The first audit found that 34 percent of the building’s waste stream could have been recycled instead, which Schuchhardt indicated was in line with expectations. Nearly five percent of the total waste was recyclable containers, and 29 percent was fiber product such as paper and cardboard.
The second audit showed that only about 30 percent of the building’s waste could have been recycled, while the total percentage of recyclable containers dropped to less than four percent and fiber product declined to 26 percent.
The county also took advantage of the waste audits to reinforce internal messaging about existing recycling and material disposal programs. During the first waste audit, several printer toner cartridges were found in the building’s waste.
After the first audit, the county began installing recycling bins which have since spread to the entire campus.
“We are implementing better recycling programs within our campus buildings to be more environmentally friendly and to help set an example for others,” Shadrick said. “We figured there would be room for improvement, but we also figured we already did a pretty good job of recycling in this building. The waste audit proved those thoughts to be true — positive, but with room for improvement.”
The Sustainability Office is planning a third audit in Jan. 2014 to measure the building’s waste stream during a time when activity in the building should be closer to the conditions of the initial audit, and to give a year-over-year measure of changes.
The improvement that was measured in the waste stream between the first and second audits gives the group hope that its efforts, and the efforts of the county, are having a positive impact on the way people in the Community Service Center view the things they choose to throw away.
“I think overall, people start to think about waste differently,” Erika Bailey-Johnson, BSU sustainability coordinator, said. “It’s one thing to have a recycling program, but when people realize that a building’s waste is going to be weighed and measured, you start paying attention.”