The Atlas logo, which is a dark blue telescope with the base shaped like an arrowhead that creates the “A” in the word Atlas. Text reads “Hot Take Number Two” with a fire icon in the word Hot.

The second installment of Atlas Hot Takes – findings and theories that make up the foundation of the Atlas project. You can read the first post here.

It isn’t that we think we’re too good to dig through your trash – most of us at the Post-Landfill Action Network would jump at the chance to go treasure-hunting through your dumpsters. Waste audits – and the kind of information we get from them – are not a part of the Atlas assessment for a couple of reasons.

An image of a raccoon lying on its back, with bold white text that reads “Trash is just treasure that people have given up on”.

Waste audits, or “characterizations,” are the most traditional form of waste assessments and a service that is commonly offered by waste haulers and many consulting companies. This describes the process of physically going through a facility’s waste stream and gathering quantitative and/or qualitative data about its contents. It can be conducted at varying levels of detail – some waste audits might separate trash bags based on the location from which it was collected, and then sort every single item found in a waste stream into 25 different material-type categories. Another might record all the different types of plastic found, while yet another audit may be as simple as collecting data on the total weight of recycling, trash, and compost collected from a facility within one week.

Campuses often seek out waste audits – and you might even have been part of one as a student – in order to identify “problem areas,” i.e. locations that are consistently producing large quantities of waste, common types of non-recyclable waste, recurring contaminants in waste streams, etc. This is useful only up to a certain point, because chances are you can already guess that fabrication/production sites and heavily-trafficked buildings are going to be making the most trash, that the dumpsters near the dorms are going to be filled with clunky, non-recyclable items around move-out each year, and that your campus’s trash cans are probably going to be filled with food-contaminated, non-recyclable take-out containers, if that’s what your on-campus eateries distribute. They are also often very location-focused, attempting to identify where specific types of waste are coming from. However, this can be misleading, because waste often “walks” – you might buy a coffee in a plastic-lined paper cup from a cafe on the border of campus, but it’s likely that you won’t throw it out until you get to your office or lecture hall on the other side of campus. Someone else, however, might stay in the coffee shop and throw it out there.

This is why we skip waste audits and why we don’t look at locations in isolation. Instead, we use the Atlas Campus Programs Checklist to conduct a holistic assessment of the full system that manages how materials flow through a campus, including the existence of campus-wide purchasing and end-of-use policies, programs, and infrastructure that support the reduction of waste on campus. Understanding how these pieces play a part in deciding what kind of materials are brought onto a campus in the first place, and how they affect the way materials are handled at the end of their use, is critical to making progress towards the goal of “zero waste.” For this reason, we interview folks beyond the recycling and facilities managers on campus – we talk to every department, from athletics and arts to dining and student life, because waste is the one element of environmental sustainability that everyone touches. The recommendations we provide, following one of our holistic assessments, are intended to help a campus keep as much material in use as possible, and sustainably control what ultimately does end up in their waste stream.  

An image of a raccoon with its hands together and smiling, with bold white text that reads “Dumpster diving just found homemade tortillas”.

With all that being said, we do recognize the value of conducting a waste audit after a campus has undergone the system switches to streamline their purchasing and standardize their collection systems. It can be a useful way to pinpoint specific contaminants. For example, suppose a campus has replaced all disposable to-go cups with certified compostable cups, but a waste audit reveals that non-compostable plastic cups are winding up in the campus’ waste streams. Because the campus has already streamlined purchasing to only include compostable cups, we can narrow down the source of these non-compostable plastic cups to a few non-campus affiliated sources: say, off-campus eateries and student gatherings that are not campus-sponsored. Once the source has been identified, the campus can develop strategies to mitigate contamination, such as by approaching the producer, designing collection systems to explain where these items should go, etc.

Learn more about PLAN’s Atlas framework and how you can bring it to your campus here.