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A Solid Waste of a Summer: A Millennial’s Perspective Part 1

By Christopher Galantino, Cornell University, President Cornell Sustainability Consultants, SWEEP Intern

During my junior year at Cornell, I got involved with the Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol (SWEEP) after SWEEP Founder, Rob Watson (who also created the LEED standard), came to Cornell for the annual Business Impact Symposium. I was offered a summer internship with SWEEP and two days after finishing my junior year of college, I found myself driving to New Hampshire for my first assignment: attend the 2018 Annual Northeast Recycling Conference to provide administrative support for solid waste experts as we developed the environmental standard.

I was sitting at a banquet table with fellow SWEEP members on the last day of the conference. Lunch was sliced steak, baked beans, mac n’ cheese and I had also helped myself to a refreshing side of spring mix. Kicking off the awards portion of the luncheon was a skit by the students of Allenstown (NH) Elementary. All lined up in costume, these cute kids played everything from an apathetic recycler to a polluted planet in sneakers. It was a predominantly well-choreographed, and extremely adorable, performance piece on the importance of unified action in recycling our trash.

As I gazed around the room full of landfill operators, MRF (pronounced “murf,” which for any non-professionals reading this stands for ‘Material Recovery Facility’) owners, waste haulers, municipal leaders and other members of the solid waste industry, I had a shocking revelation. Other than the grade-schoolers on stage, I was probably the youngest person in the room…by a lot. Where was my generation amongst the crowd? What does this portend for the future of solid waste management? What the heck have I gotten myself into?

Let’s face it, my peers and I have a different relationship to “stuff” than our parents, and our understanding of waste and its evolving relationship to “things” is as complicated as it is inconvenient for business as usual. We are much more interested in having experiences than in accumulating material goods. In fact, so-called Millennials have the lowest rates of home and car ownership since the 1980s.

This ambivalence toward materiality also extends to recycling. According to a 2017 Waste Dive article, 43% of U.S. millennials were skeptical that the material they put on the curb was actually recycled. For 16 to 34 year olds in the U.K., only about half recycle “all they can” while 35 to 54 year olds and 55 to 74 year olds have recycling rates of 70% and 83% respectively. These reported attitudes are consistent with my own experiences.

Given my background in environmental engineering and my passion for sustainability, my housemates at college are continuously asking me what can be recycled and why I care in the first place. Why must we wash our Chobani cups? Are plastic forks good to put in single-stream? Are we seriously going to implement composting? This confusion and reluctance amongst my peers to handle unwanted material is ubiquitous in modern society and not just something I find in my own collegiate living situation.

Even with attempts to make recycling easier through single stream collection (all recoverable materials in one bin, compared with separate paper and container bins), it is perceived as a chore with dubious benefits. It doesn’t help that we are constantly bombarded with contradictory information and opinion, which contributes to us being disconnected and misinformed about what happens to the material we separate and why it makes a difference.

Although my family back home recycles, the occasional visit to a friend’s house reveals they don’t even bother to sort their Poland Spring bottles from their coffee filters. I must admit that from time to time, I find myself standing over the two bins asking myself what the right receptacle is and whether my effort is negated by those who don’t even try. The increasing number of articles about cities that are allowing recycling to be ‘temporarily’ landfilled because China’s market has closed doesn’t help.

Through the creation of their own play and lifecycle workshops at the NRRA conference, the kids of Allenstown Elementary were taught that recycling is good for the planet as was I, but is this bringing us closer to solving our waste issues? For someone who has been subscribed to various waste and resource news outlets in order to provide perspective for the work I’m doing this summer, I have become more aware of the disconnect between the actual fate of the materials we throw away and what my peers think happens to it. Saving turtles from malicious plastic straws is great, but reducing our straw consumption won’t save the oceans. Similarly, today’s recycling approach and infrastructure is not significantly different from what my parents had when they were my age and there is a desperate need to bring the industry and our thinking into the 21st century.

While efforts are made by younger consumers to choose more circular products, there must be both physical and information infrastructure that engages and satisfies this emerging market. In Part 2 of “A Solid Waste of a Summer: A Millennial’s Perspective,” I will utilize industry research, as well as my own observations, to address this challenge and suggest some options for developing a path toward sustainable waste management.

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