A Coffee Cup is Not Just a Coffee Cup

       I have a reputation among my friends for being the waste stickler. After we go to New World, Skinny P, or The Marche, and get up to dispose of our waste, I find myself saying “AH, not there!” or “you can compost that!” at the waste station. Fortunately, my friends, like myself, believe that sorting their waste properly can lead to bigger environmental improvements. It is hard to do it though. Properly sorting waste takes effort, more than one might think.

         One factor which makes it difficult to sort waste is that not all of one product may be disposed of in the same way. For example, a coffee cup is not just a coffee cup when it comes to disposal. Speeder and Earl’s cups are made completely of paper, making them compostable. Green Mountain Coffee cups have a wax coating on the inside and thus go in the trash. If it is used and dirty, it can’t be recycled, but if it’s clean, it can be. If someone were to ask me “Is my coffee cup that I got at the UVM Davis Center compostable?”, I would have to get an in-person look at the cup to tell.

         This lack of consistency makes it hard to generalize where waste should be put. It also creates a problem when it comes to signage and instructions. We can’t put a sign above the compost bins that say “compost your spoons” because not ALL spoons are compostable. As a result of the inability to generalize, a lot of waste is mis-sorted. Based on my experience at last year’s Davis center waste audit, people have the best intentions on sorting their waste properly, however, the slight differences between products of the same type tend to trip people up. This is understandable, especially if people are in a rush or focused on something other than sorting their waste (which, understandably, can be a lot of the time).

         Through bringing up the idea of standardizing products across campus to professors, my superiors, and dining staff, I have found that this problem is not easy to solve. In the case of coffee cups, UVM receives that companies give them; it is the larger chains that would need to collaborate for all of one type of product to be disposed of in the same way. This poses a much greater challenge, as a collaboration between companies is something that would be difficult, especially when the exact type of coffee cup they distribute might not be a primary concern.

     On the flip side, this type of collaboration holds the potential to have financial benefits for companies. If some type of program incentivized companies to collaborate on waste disposal methods and disposable products, some of these products could be streamlined. Starting with local companies could be a good start. It would be difficult to get a larger corporation such as Sodexo to work with New World, however, getting New World to work with Catpause, for example, might be a good starting point. On a larger scale (city-wide, country-wide, even globally), collaboration companies could make waste disposal much more intuitive for everyone.

         Another aspect of the confusion surrounding waste disposal is the different waste-handling systems. In my hometown of Salt Lake City, the recycling center has a machine that sorts recyclables by density via a conveyor belt and giant fan (I would highly recommend watching a video of it, it is really cool). We have separate glass recycling, and we can only compost yard waste. Here at UVM, recyclables go to CSWD facilities, where workers hand sort the recyclables (which is the reasoning behind the 2” x 2” rule). Our compost is sent to Green Mountain Compost facilities, where our compostable waste is put through an aerobic industrial composter. Learning what can and can’t be recycled here took a while for me; it was so different than what I was used to.

         Streamlining techniques/ methods of waste disposal would be a process extremely difficult, especially because some methods work better in certain places. I feel that focusing on what works best for a specific community and workers in terms of waste disposal facilities is necessary for sustainable functioning. However, educating people about how waste facilities work, and why they operate the way they do, is a key step in reducing the mis-sorting of waste. It can help people conceptualize what happens to their waste once they put it in a bin.  

         Some of you reading this might feel a little helpless or overwhelmed. Like, WHOA, how am I supposed to get companies to collaborate with each other?! Although it is a large part of the solution, it might not happen for a while. As for right now, one way to help is to educate yourself, and your peers, on how to sort your waste and what happens to it after you chuck it. Look to see if products are labeled as “recyclable” or “industrially compostable”. When in doubt, look it up (on the product or on the CSWD website), and then if still in doubt throw it out. Don’t be afraid to tell your friend who is about to compost a ketchup packet “YO! Did u know that should go in the trash?”


Written by UVM Guest Writer: Althea Deschenes 

Edited by Annie Stibora