UW garbage researchers uncover a heap of surprises

SEATTLE - Our trash says a lot about us.

So much so that researchers at the University of Washington are studying "Garbage 101" - and what they've uncovered is triggering change when it comes to dealing with waste.

For this group of garbage researchers, all the stuff we throw away is a gold mine of information. Rifling through garbage cans and recycling containers from around campus comes with plenty of surprises - and a few dangers.

Last week, for example, they came across a hypodermic needle in the trash. And on Thursday, it was a biohazard bag.

By targeting trashy habits, this group, part of The UW Garbology Project, says it can get a better handle on what's working with the UW cleanup and recycling programs, and what needs adjusting.

They've discovered that 80 percent of the things tossed into trash cans should have been recycled or composted.

That means a lot of garbage is going to landfills that shouldn't be.

The university pays $145 for each ton of trash that's hauled away - but recycling is free.

"Sorting through trash, it is the most educational experience ever," says Emily Newcomber, UW recycling program manager. "Even die-hard recyclers and composters learn something new when they go through their garbage or someone else's."

It's a messy job that others wouldn't think of touching.

"We want to teach people about waste issues, everyday waste issues, that are local and relevant to them, says UW garbage researcher Jack Johnson.

But doing the right thing these days can be confusing.

For example, the group finds that the item most often thrown in the garbage when it should not be is - the common coffee cup. Many don't realize it can be recycled or composted.

The cup is not alone.

"Honestly, plastics are the most confusing thing," says Johnson. "Plastics can be trash, they can be compostable, or they can be recyclable."

That's part of the research.

Telling people more clearly of what what's and where it should go that can allow for better decisions to be made about a never-ending waste stream.


More information:

The UW Garbology Project

UW Office of Recycling