Sophie Merritt and her classmates pull on gloves and snap on masks as they begin the task of completing a waste audit.
A waste audit involves sorting through the contents of garbage bags pulled from various buildings across Western’s campus. The results are surprising — and likely include your festive holiday coffee cup.
“We ripped through those garbage bags and the main two things we saw were the hand paper towels from the bathrooms and coffee cups — two things that are recycle or compostable,” says Merritt, who is completing her master's in environment and sustainability.
A coffee cup, for example, is a recyclable item that is still mistakenly thrown into the trash despite being a recyclable 'container' in London since 2014.
Prior to the introduction of the coffee cup recycling program, an average of 12,000 coffee cups were disposed of daily on campus, many of them improperly.
“A lot of students maybe don’t know, it’s not in the forefront for them,” Merritt says about students improperly disposing of waste.
Festive cups and contests like Roll up the Rim to Win also encourage consumption of coffee cups on campus. To help combat this consumption, EnviroWestern introduced Refill to Win, which enters students into a raffle who use a reusable mug.
David Cano, manager of sustainability at Western Facilities Management, explains that Western is currently aligned with London’s waste disposal system. On campus, students are faced with the choice to sort their waste into garbage, recyclable containers or paper. Compost is also available at on-campus eateries and residences.
Cano explains that it can be difficult to get students on the same page.
“We understand that reaching out to current generations, they change every four years and come from different cities and counties that have specific waste management programs,” he says. “So using our standard can be difficult to communicate to students.”
Merritt values the effort made by Facilities Management to educate students about proper waste disposal. But unfortunately, some of the efforts such as new signage on bins — which includes pictures of appropriate items — have gone unanswered.
While Merritt says many students are open to learning about environmental sustainability, she acknowledges that convenience often trumps.
Bringing in a disposable mug, for example, will earn students a ten-cent discount from hospitality services when they purchase a hot beverage; but the inconvenience of washing a reusable mug is less appealing than drinking from a festive holiday cup and disposing of it once the drink is gone.
While other initiatives such as the effort to reduce disposable water bottles on campus have been highly successful, the recycling program is still going through some pilot projects to improve waste diversion from landfills and meet Western’s goal of 90 per cent landfill diversion by 2022.
These pilot programs, such as taller and better-signed waste disposal bins outside Weldon, test to see what students respond well to in terms of accurate sorting.
“We’ve heard from some studies that mention you have half a second between when you are trying to throw something out to the garbage and then actually doing it,” Cano says. With that in mind, there is limited text on the bins to minimize time spent sorting.
Merritt herself has gone one step further and has tried going waste free. To minimize food packaging waste, she shops at farmers markets using only a reusable bag — no individual bags for each type of produce needed.
"The key for me is that I don’t get any plastics from that," Merritt says. In terms of cost, Merritt says, "I bought a huge bag of veggies and fruits that lasted me two weeks and that was $20."
Merritt has also cut off the bottoms of green onions, lettuce and various herbs and successfully planted them in her home, avoiding the cost of having to purchase these items. She has even used old candle holders as planter pots.
"It's pretty neat," Merrit says on the quick growth of the plants. "It also makes your food way more enjoyable and you might actually be more interested in eating healthier if those herbs and onions etc. are right there."
Through continued education and student engagement, students can learn to treat this city more like a home to be cared for rather a place to pass through in four years. Like Merritt says, "I think its easy changes that can make a significant impact."