February 17, 2019

KIM | One Dirty Plastic Bowl at a Time

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I raised my speckled, squished banana out of my backpack with a mission to find the nearest compost bin. My first stop: Trillium dining hall. As soon as I entered, I saw the row of large bins and posters and spotted the small, almost unnoticeable compost sign posted to the side of where the rest of the bins were. But there was no bin. As a Trillium employee exited from the kitchen, I asked if she knew where the compost bin was. Her response took me by surprise, but I knew this would happen at some point.

She told me that they had terminated the use of compost bins due to the immense amount of improper composting. Plastics, dirty boxes, and wrappers were tossed into the compost mix, defeating the entire purpose. With disappointment and gloom, I continued my search.

My final stop was Cafe Jennie in the Cornell Store. The three compartments were neatly distinguished and clearly labeled as “compost”, “bottles”, and “napkins”. There was a compost, but landfill disposal was nowhere to be seen. With my banana mission finally fulfilled, a new task was at hand.

After asking the cashier, I found the regular trashcan hiding ambiguously in a corner, set far apart from the other disposals. My dining experiences at Cafe Jennie always ended with a nagging dilemma that had me looking back and forth from the compost to the recycling with my dirty salad box in hand. When the landfill waste is placed in an odd, separate location, the compost and recycling become extra landfill waste as unfinished leftovers are dumped into both.

Cornell is known for sustainability efforts. These efforts, however, don’t seem to actually achieve support this image. I was never an environmental guru myself, and I’m definitely not one currently. I always had difficulty deciding whether or not something was recyclable or not. I barely knew what compost was. Even now, I can’t provide professional advice on Recycling 101. Despite my lack of expertise in sustainability, I want to share what I’ve learned over the years in hopes of making our campus a teensy bit greener.

We have to be smarter with the way we dispose and recycle. One of the biggest mistakes that I’ve made in the past was recycling dirty plastics. Plastics with remnants of food or oily residue can’t be recycled. When they’re thrown into a whole bag of clean plastics, the whole bag is considered contaminated and is thrown into the general landfill like just another bag of junk. The reason behind this tragic reality? “The cleaner a plastic bottle is, the easier it is to reincarnate it as something new,” according to The Atlantic, and the dirtier the plastic is, the harder it is to transform. All trash undergoes a multi-step, complex process from the bin to the different processing centers, and throughout this process, every little piece of plastic is sorted and their fates ultimately depend on our actions.

While recycling cycles plastics and metals back into our hands, compost significantly reduces food waste and returns the unwanted scraps back to the Earth as nourishing, nutrient-rich soil. But here’s the main takeaway: throw away only food scraps in the compost, and this includes “fruit scraps, vegetable scraps, non-greasy food scraps (rice, pasta, bread, etc.), coffee grounds & filters, tea bags, nutshells, cut or dried flowers”, but NOT “meat, chicken, fish, greasy food scraps, fat or oil, and dairy products,” according to an online guide on composting.

And like most of us in a hurry to get to class after lunch, if you’re absolutely uncertain, toss it into landfill. It won’t contaminate and it’ll be happily placed in its proper place.

The fate of the crinkly, empty water bottle and the fate of our own future lies in our hands and starts with little things. We have to each make an individual effort to learn and apply knowledge of recycling the right way. However, this responsibility doesn’t solely lie in our hands but also relies on the infrastructure that guides the way we treat our environment. The school itself also plays a major role in this universal issue.

If the disposal bins are unorganized or poorly labeled, the efforts would be worthless in the end. The real solution involves the collective efforts of all the players. It also involves more than the mere existence of large, plastic trash bins with bolded words slapped onto the lid. Clearer labels with detailed descriptions and instructions on how to really recycle can guide students onto the path of becoming environmentally friendly and aware. In the end, compensating for the lack of knowledge might just be a solid part of the solution. Students need to learn and schools need to teach the ways of properly disposing; we need to meet halfway.

The withdrawal of compost bins in Trillium is a sign of a decreasing initiative to correct our flawed disposal system, which can be corrected through educating the public on the method and impacts of food waste. We can’t go backwards. We can’t keep avoiding the problem while it stares right back at us as we thoughtlessly chuck the half-eaten sandwich into the compost bin. We have to revise, renovate and ultimately create a solution by knowing the process beyond the bin, how to recycle smart and the impact you can make just by tossing your trash in the right place.

Alexia Kim is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at alexiakim@cornellsun.com. Who, What, Where, Why? runs every other Friday this semester.