how to keep Brown's trash on your mind, in your sight

by by Adrian Randall

illustration by by Doug Poole, Nick Carter & Drew Foster

Trash begins the moment consumption ends. This means that in a consuming world it’s a fact of life, so get over it. Everybody shits.

If you haven’t been noticing swamps of waste at Brown, that's all right—it means the system is working. Each trash can is like a green Super Mario pipe whose job is to get rid of the sight of our throwaways. So remember that the concern over trash is first aesthetic, then ecological. Rotting vegetables and cow manure are good for the environment, but stink up a dorm room. The only condition for trash status is inconvenience.

Students aren't the direct source of the problem (that's an economics question), but we're an essential variables. Perhaps thankfully so, because variables are just that: flexible. Here's a chance to learn the system. Maybe not to change it, but at least to know, comply, or struggle with the structure of disposal. Most people don't have it this easy.


Single-use commodities—tissues, toilet paper, and most consumers plastics—are the simple carbons of our landfills. But as we're apt to know, Green is In. Recycling in the developed world is coming to be a ubiquitous, if not legally enforced, option.

This is where we come in. We may not be able to control how much we buy, but in a perfect world every student has the choice between a recycling container and a garbage bin.

Brown’s new trash vendor, Waste Haulers, will be providing the campus with single-stream recycling. Color and shape-coded bins on campus will still require students to separate containers and paper, but all the recycling eventually leaves in the same bin. For recycling to be effective, bin-contamination rates must be below five percent, otherwise it goes to the landfill.

Because all the recycling leaves together in one container, it has to be segregated later. Once Waste Hauler’s trucks get to the Kingston, RI transfer station, College Hill’s detritus is dumped and sorted out on the floor of the facilities.

The recycling is hand-sorted by three or so workers into two piles: Bottles/Containers and Paper/Cardboard. These groups are then baled, cubed for convenience, and sent to Covanta Energy facilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Covanta converts the solid municipal energy through a thermal treatment facility, otherwise known as an incinerator. Most of their plants can handle anywhere from 500 to 1,500 tons of solid waste per day. Covanta then sells that energy to the New England electric grid.

In some ways, you could look at the entire University as one large trash bin. Anything—rusting bicycles, soggy notebooks, stacks of Brown Daily Heralds—will eventually be thrown out. Even the top layer of grass on the Main Green, which is too shallow to retain its roots, is replanted each summer.

Students and their ephemera are recycled in and out of this place, too. The annual dorm room migrations buy out IKEA and Bed, Bath, and Beyond in September, and take the big dump in May. When Keeney excretes is 700-odd freshmen, the freshmen excrete all their long twin sheets, medusa lamps, and plastic bookstore mirrors.

The frats resell the refrigerators.

Waste is relative. When the 5,764-ton Smith Swim center was demolished, Brown was able to recycle 98% of the building. Brown's extensive remodeling project--Building Brown--will generate far more waste than its student in the same time period.

Dining hall waste, which is included in the yearly totals, is sent out to a local pig farm. Non-perishable leftovers are occasionally sent to shelters, through student efforts.


If Karl Marx was concerned with the origins of production, now is the time to focus on the ends of it. Landfills don't simply fill up, they leak and burst at the seams. At this point, recycling and incineration are no longer earth-friendly obligations but public necessities. There's no be-all end-all solution either; no matter what bin you drop the bottle into, some amount is going to end up at the bottom of a ditch. We live in a closed environment, and recycling is always a process of diminishing returns.

So now what? Hire enforcers to stand over trash and recycling containers? Trash-in demonstrations? What's the point of scaring people if they're already complying to an imperfect system? The first step is to know the system, know your part, and don't shirk the basic responsibilities. Then, watch for when the system makes some progress At this point it has to.


"Patching the Leaks"  [sidebar]

7.5 Tons of used clothing was sent to Fargo, ND and L'Aquila, Italy during the 2009 dorm move-out.

There are over 200 student Eco-Reps now involved at Brown University

The Brown 20/20 Project has installed cost and energy-efficient lightbulbs in over 5,000 Rhode Island homes, supported by a grant from Wal-Mart and Brown University.

Landfills manage roughly 60 percent of all municipal solid waste in the country, recycling plants 30 percent, and incineration 10 percent.


"Nothing is Sacred" [sidebar]

Not all facilities are created equally. In a controversial 1996 article for the New York Times, John Tierney claimed that costs to recycle an aluminum can outweighed the cost of landfill disposal six-to-one. Adding a product's carbon footprint, which can include distance from factory-to-store-to-recycling center, makes the waste management silver bullet even more elusive. The efficiency of waste management facilities varies just as much as the waste itself.

While advancement in incineration technology is lessening pollutants and increasing energy output, a ten-to-15 percent of incinerated waste must be either recycled or put in a landfil. And, of course, no smoke is healthy. There is no way to prevent the introduction of fine, toxic particles into earth's atmosphere.

ADRIAN RANDALL B'11 digs trash.