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Recycling RA’s

By Jon Reidel Article published April 13, 2005

Eco-Reps
Student eco-rep Tori Jones (left) sorts residence hall garbage during an investigative "trash sort" with help from program founder Erica Spiegel. (Photo: Debra Perry)

The messy job of sifting through dormitory trash reveals much about the habits of students. Although some of these revelations are best left unspoken, a March 7 “trash sort” by the Office of Recycling and Solid Waste revealed that many students aren’t getting the message that recycling is good for the environment, can save the university and potentially their parents some money and will bolster UVM’s reputation as the environmental university.

Erica Spiegel, manager of recycling and solid waste, says the project is one of many initiatives carried out by the Eco-Rep Program, a fledgling effort she started to promote environmentally responsible living in residence halls. The idea is to train and place peer teachers called eco-reps, who function like “environmental RA’s.” Since it began last spring, the program has placed eco-reps in 16 residence halls to teach students how to recycle, compost, and conserve water and electricity.

If the initiative can change student behavior, it will pay off environmentally — and financially. Take the trash sort, which involved taking 15 randomly selected bags of trash from dumpsters outside living areas and separating their contents into 12 categories (glass bottles, recyclable paper, food waste, etc.) The analysis showed that of the 271 pounds of trash, almost half of it could have been recycled. Sorters found liquid waste in many of bottles and cans that were found, for example, accounting for almost 10 percent of the total weight. Given the university’s annual waste stream of 1,800 tons per year, 172 of those tons project as liquids. So at a cost of $89 per ton, the university is paying over $15,000 (about the cost of in-state tuition and room and board) in landfill fees to dispose of leftover drinks.

The report went on to conclude that, assuming the trash sort is representative of average student waste, the university, which pays annual tipping fees for approximately 880 tons of waste generated by residence halls, could save about $30,000 a year if students properly composted and recycled.

Changing attitudes
Statistics like these aren’t surprising to Spiegel, who sees the waste on a daily basis. Changing them remains a challenge; it’s been hard to get the message out to students why recycling, water conservation, composting and other forms of conservation are relevant to their lives and the university. Enter the eco-reps.

“What we’ve done in the past hasn't worked,” says Spiegel, who launched the program with Gioia Thompson, coordinator of the Environmental Council. “There’s a disconnect between the environmental mission of the university and individual student behavior. We want to be the environmental university, and I think that means more than offering environmental courses and conducting research. Where a student lives and how they live is part of this effort.”

Eco-reps have varied backgrounds and majors but tend to share a passion for environmental stewardship. They work four hours a week for $7.50 per hour and are responsible for educating students in their dorms, attending planning meetings and producing one long-term project. A light bulb swap resulted in the converting of more than 500 incandescent bulbs to compact-fluorescent lights. The exchange in Harris-Millis and Christie-Wright-Patterson will save 73 kilowatt hours per day and about 26,000 kWh per year, resulting in an annual savings of approximately $2,660.

Other projects include a recycle bin audit; organizing a monthly environmental film night; publishing a regular column in the Vermont Cynic; and conducting student attitude surveys about public transportation and other topics. Debra Perry, a graduate student hired this year to coordinate the program, says the surveys help to understand how students think about recycling. Despite being given biodegradable composting bags, for example, many students don’t use them because it‘s inconvenient or because they smell.

“We try to put out a new message each week,” says Perry. “It could be to turn off your computer or something. We try to go door-to-door to talk with people because I think peer-to-peer and face-to-face contact is key to getting a message across. It’s also important that we keep in contact and form a network with other departments like residential life.”

Combating apathy
Many eco-reps say that although education is a big part of their job, trying to motivate students to put what they’ve learned into action is the hardest part of their job. “Apathy will always be our biggest enemy,” says first-year student Kesha Ram. “The really frustrating part of the job is that a majority of students will only do things like recycle or turn off the lights if it’s of the utmost convenience. But the more you educate, the better things get.”

Even still, most eco-reps believe that the program, one of only a handful in the nation, has a strong future if it receives the necessary support from other departments. Spiegel envisions Residential Life taking over the hiring and payroll aspects of the program, while she and the coordinator can focus on the program content.

“The future of this program is bright,” says sophomore Will McHale, an eco-rep at Wright Hall. “Eco-reps provide the on-campus community with educational information, and listen to students' responses to campus efforts to conserve. These responses provide Physical Plant with vital information that enables it to more effectively organize its efforts to minimize environmental impact and maximize convenience and efficiency.”