Operation Trash the Cuddy

By Saara Alatervo, Jade Aronson, Raine Becker, Emma Digert, Jeremiah Eisele, Claire Ferree, Austin Johnson, Kristina Khang, Anel Quiroz, Elizabeth Schoessler, Salomé Scott, Alexandra Weill, and other University of Alaska Anchorage Honors 192 students. . . writeup by Jeremiah Eisele and Mary Logan, with special thanks to Paula Williams, Director of the Office of Sustainability at UAA

184November 15th is America Recycles Day in the U.S. Local communities hold events to educate citizens on the methods and benefits of recycling. We are Honors 192 students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), and this year we “Trashed the Cuddy” as part of a class project for America Recycles Day. UAA’s Office of Sustainability hosted the event, and Dr. Herminia Din’s Art 160 Art Appreciation Class was also involved. The primary goal of our event was to help fellow students understand the importance of waste reduction through the acts of reducing, reusing, and recycling. The goal was to create visual feedback that raises awareness about the volumes of waste we create. Currently society efficiently removes and hides our volumes of trash in landfills–out of sight, out of mind. In order to illustrate how rapidly trash accumulates, campus staff bagged a single day’s worth of trash from the entire university and we placed it on display outside Cuddy Hall. We surveyed students, and invited them to visit our educational area and get a bite to eat. Our class divided into four groups to work the event by surveying attendees, promoting and publicizing the event, researching the life cycles  of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, and documenting the event through still photos and the movie at the end of this post. 

The Event

Liz Schoessler getting crafty

To ensure a successful turn-out, we publicized the event and provided an incentive to show up in the form of free pizza. The class decided to get together and have a sign and flyer making day. A majority of the materials used to make the signage came in the form of “gently used” cardboard and paper products. Some of the signs read “Feeling Trashy? Then come to the Cuddy!” while we attached other labels to cans that we distributed around the campus, encouraging students to “Bring a recyclable can to the Cuddy, and enjoy some Free Pizza!”

On the morning of America Recycles Day, UAA staff deposited a large pile of plastic bags filled with trash on the Commons outside Cuddy Hall. For safety purposes, the display of trash was surrounded by safety cones and roped off. We measured the trash heap, which was 16.5 feet long, 14.33 feet wide and 3.5 feet deep. After some quick calculations, we discovered that the trash generated over a one year time period would be enough to fill an entire football field 4.5 feet tall! We posted signs around the display explaining why the trash was there, the size it would be if it contained a one year accumulation of trash (instead of just one day), and where students should go to find our educational area – and the pizza. Once the event began, survey group members answered questions and surveyed any students who had either come to view the display or were simply passing by.

postertrashthecuddyThe educational area contained a survey table, several informative displays, and a product life cycle demonstration. Students had an opportunity to share their thoughts on recycling, and learn about the surprising amount of energy that we can save by recycling aluminum cans. Students were also able to score some free pizza and America Recycles Day swag – in the form of buttons and pencils that read “I Recycle.”

In addition to being able to teach other students about recycling, our class acquired some valuable information while performing research as part of this project. We learned about working cooperatively within groups, and we learned about activism for sustainability issues.

Emma Digert’s tally

The student surveys provided information about student attitudes towards recycling. While many of the responses were predictable, we learned how to develop surveys, and we improved on our survey for use in future recycling events. One thing we learned is that talk is cheap. Students may respond positively to surveys, but that positive intent may not translate into real sustainable behaviors later. While asking students about their intentions may get them thinking about the issues, our education station to teach students about the embodied energy and materials in Life of Can proved to be more effective in engaging students’ interest.

Capturing students’ interest

Austin Johnson with "Mr Wilson"
Austin Johnson with “Mr Wilson”

The life cycle group focused on the origin and destination of consumer products. Austin told the “Story of the Aluminum Can,” using a creative three-dimensional model of the Earth on a Pilates ball. This teaching method of storytelling with a visual aid was very effective, since aluminum production crisscrosses the planet. Austin gave a live demonstration of the Life of Can to almost everyone who came to the educational booths during the event. Aluminum begins as bauxite (aluminum ore), and Australia is the world’s dominant producer of bauxite. Bauxite is then shipped to Iceland, where it is smelted into aluminum. After that, the aluminum is shipped to the United States, where the cans are fabricated. From this point, the can goes to a bottling facility, where it is filled, packaged, and eventually . . .  arrives on the shelf at your local market. The creation of an aluminum can is a very energy intensive process. Each new can requires the energy equivalent of half a cup of gasoline. The good news is that the recycling process for aluminum cans is fairly efficient; because of this, much of the material can be saved when it is recycled. Materials with high refining costs have the greatest recycling benefits, and the yields from recycling are very high, for the most part. The primary recycle inputs for aluminum are in transportation (Brown & Buranakam, 2003).

Brown & Buranakam, 2003, Fig. 3, page 10
Brown & Buranakam, 2003, Fig. 3, page 10

We investigated the life cycle of plastic water bottles and plastic grocery bags. The energy and material used to produce a plastic water bottle could be estimated by filling the bottle one-quarter of the way up will oil. Annually, we use 17 million barrels of crude oil to create plastic bottles – this is enough oil to fuel one million vehicles for one year. We produced about 4 or 5 trillion plastic bags globally in 2002, with most used in developed countries. The biggest problem with these plastics is not where they come from but where they end up. Most post-consumer plastics end up in a land-fill, where they will sit for centuries. Unfortunately, many also make their way into our oceans. The “North Pacific Garbage Patch” is one of the names for an area of the Pacific Ocean littered with plastic debris. The area is estimated to be anywhere from 1000 to 7000 square miles in area.

The sad news is that UAA not only sells bottled water in its vending machines, but that UAA sells four different kinds of bottled water, in a city with some of the best tap water in the country. What are the parts of the system that create incentives to continue this energy, labor and material-intensive process that continues to pollute our environment?

From Sligo County Council, via WasteOnline.org.UK  Shouldn’t this pyramid be inverted if prevention is the most favored option? Shouldn’t prevention be the wide base, with disposal as the last resort at the apex of the pyramid?

While it is important to “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” the act of “Refusing” can be even more effective. For example, refusing to buy bottled water or use plastic grocery bags is an effective way to not create post-consumer plastic waste. Instead of using disposable plastic, get a reusable water bottle and canvas grocery bag. In the long run, you will save money and decrease waste. In a society with less energy and too many people, we will need to go further than recycling materials. We will need to avoid making these products in the first place, by living more simply and locally.

(Music by Imagine DragonsOn Top of the World–playing First Tap January 3rd, at the Beartooth here in Anchorage)