September 29, 2020

By ELISSA DEN HOED

Leslie Dewarjeens stared at the four plastic bins, labelled “recyclable – paper,” “composting – organics,” “recyclable – containers” and “garbage,” and then at her empty applesauce container. “Where does it go?” the puzzled office administration – legal student asked me as I stood nearby with my notepad and camera.
The demo waste audit hadn’t begun yet, but it was OK if she wanted to use the bins reserved for it. It didn’t even matter if we guessed wrong (I guessed “recyclable – containers”). Today her applesauce container would be going where it belonged.
Unfortunately, individuals who practise – and understand the importance of – waste diversion such as Jana Vodicka, environmental co-ordinator of Martin Services (Conestoga’s housekeeping service) will not be on hand every day to dump out contaminated recyclables and organics and properly sort them.
Vodicka amalgamated and lugged six bags of cafeteria waste into the atrium, aided only by the housekeeping supervisor, Phyllis Caissie, politely turning down my offer to help because it would get my “hands dirty.”
Pre-sorted by students in the cafeteria, one bag held items from the paper bins, one from containers, one from organics and three from garbage. The clear bags told an equally clear story of students’ lack of knowledge about sorting.
Plastic forks were thrown in with organics. Paper cluttered the containers pile. Many, many compostable materials, such as coffee cups and paper plates, were garbage as far as their users had been concerned. One fly buzzed around while Vodicka sorted.
The smell was mildly offensive, but what really stunk was the carelessness that was evident in some of the gathered garbage. In Vodicka’s words, most students “don’t think about (garbage) once it leaves their hand, but (there are) people who have to deal with it.”
Biotechnology student Mary Mullen, who watched from the upper floor balcony, admitted that it’s “kind of confusing” when it comes to sorting waste – but not so much here as at Fleming College, where she said waste is sorted into seven separate streams.
When Vodicka’s sorting concluded, she had filled to capacity three bags of paper, containers and organics – and was left with less than a full bag of garbage. Three marketing students watching nearby expressed surprise at how little was “actually garbage.”
Conestoga has a goal of 60 per cent waste diversion. According to last year’s annual waste audit, mandated by the provincial government, it’s sitting on the “mid-50” mark, like most colleges in Ontario. 
Recycling and composting service at Conestoga comes at a price, and that price comes out of the annual student budget. Vodicka estimates that about $80,000 of last year’s budget was spent on waste disposal, 70 per cent of it on landfilling – though half of what the school sends to landfill doesn’t have to be, as her demo waste audit proved. It would be easier to scrap the service, but this would come at a cost to the environment and the Waterloo landfill, which has only 19 years left before it reaches capacity.
Former CSI director of sustainability Zoey Ross, who attended the audit, said he would like to see instructions for proper sorting given to first-year students during orientation.
Video taken of the mini-audit will become a “teaching tool,” said Vodicka. During the filming of her sorting through garbage, she declined to speak, saying the video footage, taken by new media technologist Chris Martin and journalism print students Eric McKenzie and Nicole Jobes, would “speak for itself