Students Launch Test Recycling Project at Taste of DC

Waste Diversion DC, created by students in SPHHS, has a goal of recycling more than 70 percent of trash at the city’s outdoor events.

October 10, 2012

Hundreds of D.C. area residents, families, tourists and others sampled a wide variety of food at last Sunday’s Taste of DC event--and they also got a chance to “do the right thing” and recycle.

In the midst of vendors offering tasty samples of Thai noodles, burgers and Italian food, a crew from Waste Diversion DC was busy staffing waste stations and educating event patrons about the importance of recycling. The team assessed the success of its educational efforts by counting and weighing bags filled with garbage, plastic bottles and other recyclables, and compostable food waste and containers.

Students in the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) developed Waste Diversion DC with a goal of shifting 70 percent of the trash generated at an outdoor event in the District away from the landfill. Last spring, the project was awarded $7,500 from the Steven and Diane Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning.

Sunday’s event was an experiment designed by the students to see if they could prove the benefits of recycling to District officials. They rolled out waste stations in the rain and conducted the study—all with the help of a squad of volunteers and 31 homeless and low-income people from Street Sense.

By 5 p.m. a heavy rain cut short the experiment but not before the crew from Waste Diversion DC had collected and weighed 68 bags of waste, including 28 filled with items the city can recycle. “We successfully diverted soda cans and many other items that would have gone to the landfill,” said Poonam Sandhu, project leader of Waste Diversion DC. “Early results from our study suggest this model could represent a smarter way for the District to handle waste at outdoor events.”

Ms. Sandhu, a registered nurse who is now working toward a Master of Public Health degree in environmental health at SPHHS, launched the project along with other GW students after learning that the District has no recycling program for outdoor events. “Currently, city bylaws require recycling in homes and in commercial settings,” Ms. Sandhu said. “But there are no rules on how to recycle at outdoor events held in the city, events that can generate tons of trash.”

At the Taste of DC event, the Waste Diversion DC crew tried to make it easier for event patrons to recycle and meet the 70 percent goal. The students collected data from two different kinds of waste stations at the event. All the waste stations had recycling, compost and garbage bins. However, some of the waste stations also sported colorful signs and had staff on hand to provide guidance about where to toss the cans, paper, plastic or food waste. The intervention, Ms. Sandhu said, was designed to assess whether waste could be more effectively diverted with the addition of educational signs and staffers who could explain the ins and outs of recycling.

By nightfall the student researchers had collected 31 bags of trash destined for the landfill, 28 bags filled with bottles and other items that can be recycled, and nine bags stuffed with compost such as half-eaten food and paper products. The students also weighed all of the bags and will use the data to calculate the percentage of waste diverted away from a landfill.

The full analysis will take months to complete, but the preliminary results suggest that the manned waste stations with signs did remove some barriers to recycling, said Kholood Altassan, the SPHHS student who serves as the data analyst on the project. Other SPHHS students serving on the Waste Diversion DC team include Aditi Srivastav, Jennifer Wynn, Reshma Arrington and Helaina Matza.

In fact, the results suggest that recycling drops by 60 percent and composting goes down by nearly half at the unmanned stations. People at these basic waste stations often stopped and looked confused by the bins, Ms. Altassan said. The end result: They often take all of their trash, including items that can be recycled, and dump it in the garbage, she said.

The student researchers will take the information collected on Sunday and use it to generate a cost-benefit analysis for the District. The hope is that the research will show that waste diversion at outdoor events is both cost-effective and helps protect the environment and the public’s health, Ms. Sandhu said.

With a successful program, the D.C. Department of Public Works would haul away less garbage and thus save money on fees charged by landfills. And the city would likely be able to make money on items that can be sold for recycling, an outcome that would also help conserve natural resources and reduce the amount of damaging greenhouse gases released into the air, she added.

The project might also lead to economic benefits and the creation of new jobs in the waste disposal industry, especially if the District mandates recycling at outdoor events, Ms. Sandhu said. For this event, SPHHS student Aditi Srivastav helped recruit 31 homeless people and others from Street Sense, and Waste Diversion DC paid them at the end of the day.

“Part of the purpose of this project is to give these low-income folks training and experience so that they can find work with their newly acquired skills,” said project adviser Katherine Hunting, a professor of environmental and occupational health and of epidemiology and biostatistics at SPHHS. But Dr. Hunting also hopes the public education effort will start to rub off on individuals attending events in the District, people who might not realize the importance of recycling.

Waste Diversion DC plans to crunch all the numbers and present the policy paper to the D.C. Council by next spring.

“Mayor Gray has made it clear he wants D.C. to be the greenest city in America,” Ms. Sandhu said. “If District officials mandate recycling and waste diversion at outdoor events we will be making a huge stride toward that goal.”